Linguistic and Anthropological Journeys

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Word Origin of the Week 2: Savvy
Linguistics Timothy Patrick Snyder Anthr
linguistictim
wickedknightx asks:

What's the origin of the word "savvy?"

This one is very interesting, because it isn't a common word.  I have found words with similar sounds, and related meaning, when I studied the Romance languages.  The verb is to know in these languages, such as savoir in French, saber in Spanish and Portuguese, and sapere in Italian and Latin.  If you compare these to the Germanic grouping you get forms like Old English witan or German wissan, which are instead related to the words wit and wise

Anyway, so Savvy is related to the Romance languages' verb to know, to be wise whose origin is the Latin word sapere.  According to my source, savvy was first recorded in 1785, and it could come from two different languages, Spanish or French.  It could come from sabe? "do you know?" and because the Spanish /b/ is really the fricative /β/ it could easily sound like /v/ to English speaking people trading with Spanish speaking individuals.  The other would be from the French Savez-vous? meaning the same thing.  Eventually the verbal meaning became a noun, which we see today in terms like "computer savvy" or " legal savvy."

Other terms which are related to Latin sapere are Homo Sapiens, which literally means "wise humans."  Also the French term you sometimes hear, je ne sais quoi "I don't know what."  Occasionally you'll hear sapient, which is also thus related.

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