Q: How did “traduce” come to mean translate in Spanish and denigrate in English? Maybe there are zillions of such deviations, but I just stumbled upon this one.
A: The verb “traduce” once meant translate in English too, but that sense of the word is now considered obsolete or an affectation, according to the Oxford English Dictionary.
The OED has examples of the usage from the early 1500s to the mid-1800s. The most recent is from Alton Locke, an 1850 novel by Charles Kingsley about a young tailor who educates himself with the help of a Scottish bookseller:
“If ye canna traduce to me a page o’ Virgil by this day three months, ye read no more o’ my books.” (We’ve expanded the Oxford citation to add context.)
When the verb “traduce” showed up in English in the 16th century, it meant “to convey from one place to another; to transport,” according to the OED, but that sense is also considered obsolete.
The dictionary says the English word is derived from the Latin traducere, meaning “to lead across, transport, transfer, derive; also, to lead along as a spectacle, to bring into disgrace.”
The sense of “to lead across, transport, transfer, derive” inspired the translate meaning in the Romance languages (traducir in Spanish, traduire in French, tradurre in Italian, and so on).
As we’ve noted, English speakers used “traduce” similarly for a couple of centuries, but the OED considers that sense now obsolete or “an affectation after French traduire or Latin traducere.”
In the late 1500s, according to Oxford citations, the English word took on a new meaning: “to speak evil of, esp. (now always) falsely or maliciously; to defame, malign, vilify, slander, calumniate, misrepresent.”
The first example of the usage in the dictionary, dated 1586-’87, is from The Register of the Privy Council of Scotland: “To detract, traduce and utter speichis full of dispyte.”
The Chambers Dictionary of Etymology says the defame sense of “traduce” is probably derived from the use of the Latin traducere to mean “lead along as a spectacle, exhibit or expose (esp. captives, prisoners, etc.) to scorn or disgrace.”
So English borrowed one sense from traducere and the Romance languages borrowed another.