If I ever again accompany my husband to a medical conference in Spain, and want to tell my hosts that I am embarrassed (as he often makes me), I should not say embarazada, for that word means ‘pregnant’, which at my age would be unusual. Such false friends can add to the gaiety of foreign travel.
Among false friends, I must confess to assuming, all my adult life, that Formica, the kitchen laminate, had something to do with the ant, formica in Latin. It came as a shock last week to discover that the inventors in 1913 simply meant Formica as a substitute ‘for mica’.
Mica was an electrical insulator — the original purpose of Formica. In my defence, it is true that Formica, fabric coated with resin, did use bakelite as a resin. Bakelite (named after the Belgian-born American L.H. Baekeland) had formaldehyde as a constituent part, and the first part of formaldehyde does indeed relate to ants, which produce formic acid.
Another mystery to me was the connection with formica of the Spanish word for ‘concrete’, hormigón. There is a law that Spanish words such as hacer, hijo or hoja derive from Latin words beginning with f (facere, filius, folium). The Spanish for ‘ant’ is hormiga, from Latin formica. But what had that to do with hormigón?
The favoured theory of etymologists (not entomologists) is that hormigón, ‘concrete’, derives from a pudding or sweet called hormigos, made with breadcrumbs and walnuts or almonds with honey. I can see that it might resemble concrete, but the connection with hormigas, ‘ants’, is less clear. Did the bits of nut seem like ants?
A parenthesis here is that a more well-known dish in Spain is called migas, ‘breadcrumbs’, made indeed with breadcrumbs, oil, garlic of course and bits of chorizo and bacon. (Mexican migas are different.) The origin of the word miga is apparently Latin mica, presumably from those specks of mica you can see in granite.
For hormigón, ‘concrete’, a rival etymology posits a late Latin word formicare, ‘to mould’ or ‘form’, as one would to concrete. But there is no record of any such word. So the ants have it, I feel, for the concrete, leaving the breadcrumbs to the Formica surface.