Saturday, April 26, 2014

caracol and carousel--the connection

In the comments on my next to last post, poet and blogger extraordinaire Kathleen Kirk asked if there was a connection between the words 'caracol', the Spanish for snail, and the word 'carousel'--well, we all know what that is, I hope.

Laggard that I am, it was fortunate that commenter Hugo popped in with the answer. Etymologically, no. As Hugo goes on to say,

"Caracol comes from a pre-roman word with the sense of "shell", and carousel through French and Italian from the arabic "kuradj" (a game with toy horses for children)."

Correct--but hold that thought. I was interested in the word 'caracol' whatever its links, partly because I've been reviewing my rusty Spanish recently through Duolingo, even though I haven't come across it there. As Kathleen said in her comment, caracol is the Spanish for snail, and spiral things, and in fact one of the ways it comes through to us in English is the "cochlea" of the ear.

But if you look up caracol in English, the first thing that seems to pop us is this:

That's because the Spanish named this Mayan ruin Caracol, which lies in the Cayo district of Belize. The theory is that they gave it this name based on the winding route that took them there. The Mayans are believed to have called it Uxwitza, or Three Hills Water. Not noticing the spiral path so much, I'm guessing.

Here's a photo of an escalera de caracol, or spiral staircase

photo by Jose Luis Cernedas Iglesias
You can see why it might bear the same name as the common snail:

But I promised you something in common with carousels. The answer is: horses. Turns out a caracol or caracole is a maneuver of a horse and rider, in which they take a half turn to either right or left. It apparently, although not very definitively, comes out of an old cavalry maneuver in which riders would ride up to the battle, fire their guns and then turn back to reload while other riders came up in their stead. 

painting by Sebastian Vrancx

And yes, horses can even be made to tie in with old Three Hills Water. Well, one horse anyway.



  1. Liking your spiraling explanation!

  2. It is definitely a bit of a ramble this time, Nancy. Spiraling out of control, perhaps.

  3. Wow, wow, wow! Yes! The spiraling of the explanation also delighted me! Thank you for this!

  4. Glad you liked it, Kathleen. And it is the Year of the Horse, after all. Though my yoga teacher told us that this means we must be careful to rein in our enthusiasms and not get carried away.

    But I'm not that good at following instructions.