I'm learning Latin, and as a native Spanish speaker, the overlap in vocabulary between the two languages is of great help. However, I've come across some interesting "exceptions". An example is nimis. For instance, 1 Samuel 4:10 in the Vulgate states:

... et facta est plaga magna nimis ...

which is translated as "and there was an exceeding great slaughter"

In effect, the only meaning of nimis in Latin is "too, too much, excessively".

However, in school I learned "nimio" (which derives from Latin nimis; see wiktionary) to mean insignificant, which is the opposite definition! I've just seen that, actually, "nimio" also means "exceedingly", as in Latin. In fact, I can see in this site that there are plenty of such words having two, contrary meanings.

I'm intrigued by the origin of the "insignificant" meaning of "nimio". Presumably, "nimio" came into Spanish meaning "exceedingly" and at some point it also came to mean its contrary. How did this happen?

  • There is a well known fact that many antonyms pairs are sounding / looking alike. I don't know if there is a reason for this. Maybe someone should ask this question. The first example that comes in my mind are the Spanish words sima and cima. Also: please check this: nemo, neminis – enxaneta Nov 21 '18 at 11:40
  • 1
    @luchonacho si como dice es hablante nativo de español sugiero que haga la pregunta en español y no en inglés; preguntar en inglés por algo en español con relación al latín crea un sesgo innecesario a lo que se quiere preguntar. – alvalongo Nov 21 '18 at 20:28
  • @alvalongo Sólo intento hacer la pregunta más inclusiva. – luchonacho Nov 22 '18 at 9:11
  • Al incluir algunos, excluyes a otros. Algunas preguntas vale la pena escribirlas en los dos idiomas para que sean realmente inclusivas. De cualquier forma es una muy buena pregunta. +1 – DGaleano Nov 22 '18 at 13:40
  • Related: Jespersen's cycle in Spanish – brazofuerte Jan 8 '19 at 20:27

In the Diccionario de Autoridades (1734) the term nimio is defined as

NIMIO, MIA. adj. Demasiado, excessivo, prolixo. Latín. Nimius, a, um.

Even today the Diccionario de la Lengua Española (DLE) shows the two opposing meanings, plus one more:

1. adj. Dicho generalmente de algo no material: Insignificante, sin importancia.
2. adj. Dicho generalmente de algo no material: Excesivo, exagerado.
3. adj. Prolijo, minucioso, escrupuloso.

A note reads:

Del lat. nimius 'excesivo', 'abundante', sentido que se mantiene en español; pero fue también mal interpretada la palabra, y recibió acepciones de significado contrario.

The note just states that nimio means two opposing things because "the word was wrongly interpreted". What I take away from this is that nimio is probably used in contexts where both meanings would make sense to a hearer, so it got often wrongly assigned the "wrong" one. This sometimes happens when most people are not familiar with a word. Nimio is not an arcane term by any means, but it's not common either; uneducated speakers wouldn't know what to make of it, and would have the temptation to ascribe a suitable meaning. If something can be "abundant, excessive" it can also conceivably be "ridiculously small, insignificant".

There are a few examples of this kind of guessing-by-context that I could mention; for example, many people think sendos means the same as grandes (or fuertes). People have been warned about this common mistake by grammar textbooks for a while now (Andrés Bello does it in his 1847 grammar).

It probably doesn't help at all that nimio has two i's (a sound associated with smallness and diminutives) and is also phonetically similar to words like mínimo and ínfimo. Nimio suggests smallness, not excess.

For another example of opposite meanings, consider lívido, which means "of a color tending to violet or purple" (especially of someone's face), but is nowadays most commonly used to mean "pale" (as in "terrified" or as in "furious"), and whose Latin origin lividus apparently meant "bluish" or "leaden".

Consider also how prolijo (a synonym of nimio in the old DA, written prolixo) also has dissimilar meanings in different times and even today. It means both "long, protracted, excessive, too detailed" and "careful, precise, well-ordered, well cared-for". You can see how one meaning could drift into the other. (The original Latin, prōlixus, appears to have meant "courteous" or "favorable".)

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