Posted by: Jack Henry | March 23, 2018

Editor’s Corner: Turtles

During my last night in Mexico, I was eating dinner with my family after an exciting Segway ride. We’d been down to the beach to see the baby turtles that were born that day, and we got to “play” with them before they were sent to sea.

As my brother grabbed a tortilla from the basket on the table, he said, “Do you think the word tortuga (Spanish for turtle) and the word tortilla are from the same root?” I responded, “I don’t think so, but I’ve never looked up any Spanish etymologies.”

My brother said he thought they must be related, because when you make tortillas, they rise up in the middle sometimes and look like a turtle shell. I’ll believe almost anything, but this sounded suspicious, so I promised I’d look into it.

First, from a new website, the Online Etymological Dictionary of Spanish:

torta f. (noun) "pie," "cake"

13th cent. From Late Latin torta "bread loaf." Of unknown origin.

tortilla f. (noun) "tortilla;" "omelet"

17th cent. More literally "little pie," a diminutive of torta.

Okay. Those aren’t terribly helpful etymologies. I decided to look for Tortuga elsewhere. This time I went for Etymologias and I found this:

For those of you non-Spanish speakers, this is my best attempt at a translation. I’m sure fluent speakers could offer you something prettier, but at least it is an interesting etymology.

According to Christians, angels are up in the sky and devils are deep in the earth. Turtles are marine or terrestrial reptiles with a body covered by a strong shell. One type of turtles lives in the mud. The say Christians saw these reptiles that came from the mud and thought that they were devils from the depths of the earth. The name is from the Greek tartaruchus (demon) from tartaros (hell) and ekhein (inhabit), or “inhabitant of hell.” [KC – Maybe hell-dweller?]

And finally, the etymology of turtle from my favorite folks at the Online Etymology Dictionary:


“tortoise,” c. 1600, originally “marine tortoise,” from French tortue, tortre (13c.) “turtle, tortoise” (often associated with diabolical beasts, of unknown origin. The English word perhaps is a sailors’ mauling of the French one, influenced by the similar sounding turtle (from turtledove – Old English turtle from Latin turtur “turtledove”). Later extended to land tortoises; sea-turtle is attested from 1610s.

So, to my brother—I’m afraid they aren’t related, but we are, and I had a great time in Mexico with you!

Me holding my newborn friend, the sea turtle.

Bucket full o’ newborns

Kara Church

Technical Editor, Advisory

Symitar Documentation Services

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