Basque Fact of the Week: The Strange Literal Meanings of Some Basque Words

At the time of his death, Professor Larry Trask was working on an etymological dictionary of the Basque language. The dictionary was to give the origin of Basque words, tracing their history to either other languages or to a so-called Proto-Basque, a reconstructed Basque that must have been spoken many years ago. Though I’m not a linguist, the process is fascinating, as the regional dialects of Basque — ranging from Zuberoa through Gipuzkoa to Bizkaia — provide some clue to how Basque words have evolved, giving linguists an idea of what kinds of changes in words are natural to Basque and allowing them to reconstruct ancient proto-words in the language. In the end, no dictionary was published as Prof. Trask died before it was complete. However, his colleague, Max Wheeler, took Trask’s notes and made them into a web publication. Looking through it, I was struck by some of the literal meanings of some Basque words and phrases. I’m sure that a lot of English words sound strange when one thinks of the literal meaning, but as a native speaker, they don’t catch my ear. Looking at Basque, these words stand out.

Dolphin equals man plus pig?
  • adarbegi, the word for a knot in a tree, literally means adar ‘horn, branch’ + begi ‘eye’
  • andereder, meaning weasel, comes from andere ‘lady’ and eder ‘beautiful’
  • haserre, anger, comes from hats ‘breath’ + erre ‘burn’
  • begiluze ‘envious, curious’ from begi ‘eye’ and luze ‘long’
  • belhagile ‘witch’ from belar ‘grass, plant, herb’ and gile ‘maker’
  • belaingorri ‘stark naked’ from belaun ‘knee’ and gorri ‘red’
  • eguraldi ‘weather’ from egun ‘day’ and aldi ‘time’
  • emagaldu ‘prostitute’ from eme ‘female’ and galdu ‘lost’
  • erlasaski ‘beehive’ from erle ‘bee’ and saski ‘basket’
  • ezbai ‘doubt’ from ez ‘no’ and bai ‘yes’
  • gatzil ‘insipid, tasteless’ from gatz ‘salt’ and hil ‘dead’
  • gizaurde ‘dolphin’ from gizon ‘man’ and urde ‘pig’
  • gogabera ‘merciful’ from gogo ‘mind’ and bera ‘soft’
  • goiartu ‘defeat, vanquish’ from goi ‘high place’ and hartu ‘take’
  • idibegi ‘camomile’ from idi ‘ox’ and begi ‘eye’
  • hilerri ‘cemetery’ from hil ‘dead’ and herri ‘inhabited place’
  • ipurterre ‘impatient’ from ipurdi ‘butt’ and erre ‘burnt’
  • izarrihitz ‘dew’ from izar ‘star’ and ihitz ‘frost’
  • jainkojale ‘one who is religious in form but not spirit’ from jainko ‘god’ and jan ‘eat’
  • katagorri ‘squirrel’ from katu ‘cat’ and gorri ‘red’
  • lubizi ‘landslide’ from lur ‘earth’ and bizi ‘living’
  • mihiluze ‘gossipy’ from mihi ‘tongue’ and luze ‘long’
  • minbizi ‘cancer’ from min ‘pain’ and bizi ‘living’
  • ogigaztae ‘weasel’ from ogi ‘bread’ and gazta ‘cheese’
  • saguzar ‘bat’ from sagu ‘mouse’ and zahar ‘old’
  • sorgin-orratz ‘dragonfly’ from sorgin ‘witch’ and orratz ‘needle’
  • urtxakur ‘otter’ from ur ‘water’ and txakur ‘dog’
  • Trask notes a few other things that jumped out at me. For example, Basque has next to no native nautical terms nor words for weapons or related to cooking. There are a few words in Basque of Arabic origin, including azoka ‘market’.


Basque Fact of the Week: The Earliest Documentation of the Word “Euskara” is in the Name of a Basque-Muslim

We all know how central language is to the identity of the Basques. Indeed, the Basque word for a Basque person, euskaldun, means one who has, or speaks, Euskara, the Basque language. However, given that Euskara has not been a written language for very long, it isn’t clear exactly where the word Euskara comes from. It seems that the very earliest record of the word, as chronicled by Ahmad ibn Umar al-Udrí (1003-1085), comes from the name Marzuq ibn Uskara, a Basque that had converted to Islam during the Muslim conquest of Spain.

Drawing of Bahlul ibn Marzuq by Arantzazu Blanco Grañera.
  • Marzuq ibn Uskara means Marzuq son of Uskara. Marzuq, it seems, was a local ruler. He had settled in the Castle Muns or Muñones, in what is now La Puebla de Castro, having come “from the north.” Likely to preserve his power when the Muslims invaded, he became a muladi, or a converted Muslim, himself. (Though, maybe Uskara himself had already converted to Islam.)
  • The historian Alberto Cañada Juste has suggested that this name might mean that Marzuq was son of a Basque named Uskara while the historian and writer Txomin Peillen has argued that Uskara can’t be an Arabic or Berber name, that it must have been indigenous, and, at that time, meant euskaldun (from the Uxue blog).
  • Some sources say that Marzuq ibn Uskara had three sons, others thirty. The most important of these was Bahlul ibn Marzuq, born in what is now Puebla de Castro. Bahlul led a popular revolt against the Arab-Muslim rulers. In 798, he rebelled against Al-Andalus in Zaragoza and in 800 he conquered the town of Huesca, which had been ruled by the Banu Salama family.
  • Bahlul created an independent kingdom that barely lasted 4 years (798 to 802), but was of such impact that its feats and ideal of justice were told and recreated throughout the northern area of the peninsula for decades, passed down from generation to generation by oral transmission: “…Bahlul, a rebel prophesied and sent by God to free his people from the tyranny of the Banu Salama rulers, who snatched the city of Zaragoza and the lands of the rich Ebro Valley from the powerful Emirate of Cordoba…” (from La Puebla de Castro blog).

Basque Fact of the Week: Argizaiolak, the Basque Funerary Candles

In many parts of the world, it is common to light a candle in remembrance of those who have died. In the Basque Country, this kind of tradition has taken its own special form. The argizaiola, literally translated as candle-board (from argizari — candle or wax and ohol — board), is a wooden board around which a thin wax candle is wrapped. The argizaiola was placed on the family tomb and lit, on all Sundays but particularly on All Saints Day, to give a light to show souls the way and chase away the darkness.

  • The use of argizaiolak probably began in the 15th or 16th centuries, when parishioners gained the right to be buried inside the church, and was common until the middle of the 20th century, when the introduction of benches by the Second Vatican Council hindered the ability to access the family tombs. In reality, by that time, the tombs were no longer in the churches themselves, having been moved to cemeteries by the end of the 18th centuries, but symbolic tombs were still present. Today, there are very few places where the argizaiola is still used, with the church in Amezketa standing out in continuing the practice.
  • The argizaiola was lit by the etxekoandrea, or woman of the house, or the eldest daughter, and placed on the family tomb in the church. This rite was so important that, when the women of wealthy houses could not attend the trades, they hired a maid or another woman to keep the fire in their place.
  • An argizaiola can be smooth or decorated, and comes in a variety of shapes, but characteristically it has a handle to turn it as the candle burns, a smooth central part where the wax is coiled (white or yellow, depending on whether the dead is single or married), and the two ends that are decorated and outlined. Its shape is often anthropomorphic, with decorative motifs such as rosettes, helices, crosses, vegetables, leaves, curved sutures, leaves, and notches.

Primary sources: Otermin, Joxe Mari; Argizaiolas de Amezketa. Enciclopedia Auñamendi, 2019. Available at:; KeixArt; Los Viajes de Aspasia

Basque Fact of the Week: The Basque Farmhouse, or Baserri

One of the most unique and ubiquitous sites in the Basque Country are the rural dwellings that dot the mountainsides. With their red-roof tiling, their stone corners, and white-washed walls, they are an enduring symbol of the rural traditions of the Basque Country.

Image from
  • Each baserri has its own name and, in the days before it was mandated that children take the names of their parents, people were named after their baserri. These names are toponymic, meaning that they refer to the place. The baserri my dad grew up in is called Goikoetxebarri, meaning the “new house up there” (in my own translation). Uberuaga means “place of hot water” or “hot springs,” indicating that, at one point, the family baserri was next to a hot springs.
  • The word baserri comes from the Basque words basa and herri, meaning, respectively, wild and settlement.
  • The original baserri were made of wood. It wasn’t until the 15th century that rich farmers who could afford stonemasons started building with stone. The increased building activity of this time led to some of the first environmental laws, in 1657, which required, amongst other things, that anyone who cut down a tree had to plant two in its place.
  • In Hegoalde, the Spanish side of the Basque Country, when a husband and wife are ready to retire, they select one, and only one, of their children (it doesn’t have to be the eldest nor a male) to inherit the baserri. In Iparralde (the French side), however, the Napoleonic Codes made such inheritances illegal.
  • While there are many variations in style, some basic features common to nearly all baserri are the fact that the stables are in within the building and there are three floors. The entrance typically points to the south-east, shielded against the weather.
  • One superstitious practice is to hang “eguzkilori” or “sunflowers” (silver thistle) on the baserri door to both ward off witches, devils and lamia as well as protect against lightning.

Primary source: Wikipedia.

Basque Fact of the Week: Animals Unique to the Basque Country

Being part of Europe, the Basque Country naturally has flora and fauna similar to other parts of Europe. For example, as far as I can tell, there are no species of frogs unique to the Basque Country. However, just like the people themselves, the ruggedness and relative isolation of the mountainous region (along with some help from their human friends) has given rise to a few animals that are special to the Basque Country. Here are just a few; for a more complete list, see this Wikipedia article.

Image from Wikipedia.
Image from VetStreet.
  • The Pottok is a semi-feral breed of pony that has lived in the Pyrenees mountains for thousands of years. There are two varieties of these ponies, a mountain and a plains Pottok. There are roughly 5,500 of purebred Pottok remaining. Their coloring and familiarity with mountains made them ideal for smugglers moving goods across the French-Spanish border. The Basque Mountain Horse is another equine that is indigenous to the Basque Country.
  • The Basque Shepherd Dog is, as the name indicates, a breed of dog used by shepherds in the Basque Country to herd their sheep and cattle. In Basque, the dog is called euskal artzain txakurra. There are two types of Basque shepherd dog, the smooth-haired Gorbeiakoa and the rough-haired Iletsua. There is evidence, from skeletal remains in caves, that the Basques have had sheepdogs for about 12,000 years.
  • Maybe the most recognized Basque breed is the Great Pyrenees, this dog is used as a guardian for livestock, as it can be very aggressive with any predators that threaten its flock. It was bred centuries ago specifically to aid in shepherds and herding dogs in caring for their flocks. It has a thick double coat that protects it from the weather. While aggressive with predators, it is known for its gentle nature around young and defenseless animals and children.
  • The Basques are known for cheese, and thus it might be no surprise that there is a variety of sheep, the Latxa, native to the Basque Country that is used to make maybe the most famous Basque cheese, Idiazabal. Their name refers to the long, rough wool that covers their bodies. Since 1982, special breeding plans have been put in place to prolong the breeding season.
  • The Euskal Oiloa, or Basque Chicken, is another breed native to the Basque Country. It differs from other Spanish chickens by its yellow feet, red earlobes, and brown eggs. There are five varieties of this chicken, ranging in color from black to red to white. Basques preferred the brown eggs of their chickens to the white eggs of Leghorns. However, brown-egged hybrids came on the scene, the Basque Chicken lost its hold on the Basque consumer.

Basque Fact of the Week: Miguel Indurain, One of the Greatest Cyclists Ever

Miguel Indurain Larraya is recognized as one of the greatest cyclists in the history of cycling. He is one of four people to win five Tours de France (Lance Armstrong‘s victories were stripped when he admitted to doping). Indurain holds the distinction, however, of being the only one to win his five Tours consecutively, winning the Tours from 1991 to 1995. Not only did he win five Tours, he also won the Giro d’Italia twice, being only one of seven riders who won both the Giro and the Tour in the same season. He also won the individual time trial at the 1996 Olympic Games in Atlanta.

Jul 1995: Miguel Indurain of Spain in action during stage two of the Tour de France, in France. \ Mandatory Credit: Mike Powell /Allsport
  • Indurain was born in Villava, Nafarroa, just outside of Pamplona/Iruña. Villava is a small town that was founded in 1184 by King Sancho VI the Wise.
  • His first bike, given to him by his dad when he was 10, was stolen a year later. Indurain worked the fields with his dad to buy a new one. However, it wasn’t until he was 14 that he competed in his first race and by 18 he had won the national amateur road championship.
  • To understand Indurain’s almost superhuman abilities, many tests were performed on him. These tests revealed that (1) his blood cycled 7 liters of oxygen through his body per minute (the average person only cycles about 3-4 liters per minute), (2) his cardiac output was 50 liters per minute, compared to about 5 liters per minute for the average person at rest, (3) his lung capacity was 7.8 liters, compared to an average of about 6, (4) his resting pulse reached 28 beats per minute, while the average person’s is 60-72, and (5) his VO2 max was 88 ml/kg/min compared to an average of 35-40 ml/kg/min for a healthy but untrained man. It is these superior physiological qualities that are suspected to have given Indurain such an advantage.
  • Cycling is very popular in the Basque Country and the region has produced a large number of cyclists. The Tour of the Basque Country weaves through the region every year. Indurain competed in the Tour of the Basque Country in 1990, taking 3rd place.

Primary source: Wikipedia.

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