Hoary Hair

One of the words that came up in my Spanish lessons today was cana [ˈkana], which means white or grey hair. I hadn’t come across it before, so thought I’d find out more about it and where it comes from.

Many Shades Of Grey

Cana is related to, and possibly derived from, cano (ancient, old (person), hoary, white/grey-haired). Cano and cana come from the Latin word cānus (white, hoary, frothy, grey), from the Proto-Italic *kaznos (grey), from the Proto-Indo-European *ḱas- (blond, grey, white) [source].

Retaled words and expressions include:

  • canoso = grey/white-haired, grey, white
  • encanecer = to go grey, to go mouldy
  • tiene canas = He has grey/white hair
  • echar una cana al aire = to let one’s hair down, to whoop it up (“to throw a grey hair in the air”)
  • echar la última cana al aire = to have one’s last fling
  • faltar a las canas = to show a lack of respect for one’s elders
  • peinar canas = to be getting on

Some words from the same PIE root include:

  • Portuguese: = grey hair; cão = white-haired
  • Welsh: can = white, shining, brilliant; cannu = to bleach, blanch, whiten; cannydd = bleach; ceinach = hare
  • English: hare
  • Greek: ξανθός (xanthós) = blonde, fair, flaxen, tawny; golden

Cana is also a slang word for the police and prison in Argentina, Uruguay and Chile.

Cana should not be confused with caña, which means cane, reed, a slim type of glass, or a hangover. It comes from the Latin canna (reed), from the Ancient Greek κάννα (kánna – reed), from the Akkadian 𒄀 (qanû – reed), from the Sumerian 𒄀𒈾 (gi.na) [source].

Incidentally, the word hoary (white, whitish, greyish-white) comes from hoar (white/greyish colour, antiquity), from the Old English hār (hoar, hoary, grey, old), from the Proto-Germanic *hairaz (grey), from the Proto-Indo-European *(s)ḱeh₃- (grey, dark). [source].

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