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’.


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