• sierra •
see-e-rê • Hear it!
Part of Speech: Noun
Meaning: 1. A mountain range with a jagged line of peaks or ragged profile. 2. A west coast Spanish mackerel.
Notes: Today's word is a beautiful Spanish gift to English, used by speakers who probably are unaware of its meaning in many geographical names. Sierra in Spanish originally referred only to the cutting tool, a saw. But the jagged blade of a saw lent its name metaphorically to the jagged ridges of mountains like the Sierra Nevada, the snow-covered saw in Spain. (Yes, Nevada means "snow-covered" in Spanish—an odd name for a state that shares Death Valley and the Mojave Desert with California, no?)
In Play: The "sierra" in the names of the African nation of Sierra Leone "Lion Saw", the Sierra National Forest which contains much of the California, Sierra Nevada, and the Sierra Club came along after the figurative sense sierra had become the second meaning of the Spanish word. The same is true of the Sierra Madre ("Mother Range") mountain range in Mexico, and the setting of the 1948 Humphrey Bogart classic, "The Treasure of the Sierra Madre", directed by John Huston.
Word History: Sierra is the Spanish descendant of Latin serra "saw", the origin of which is unknown. The adjective from this word was serratus "like a saw blade, serrated", upon which English based its adjective serrated, referring to knife blades that are toothy like a saw. The Spanish word today means both "saw" and "jagged mountain range".