James A. Landau JJJRLandau at AOL.COM
Tue Apr 2 18:04:44 UTC 2002

Since Barry Popik is working his way through the Hakluyt Society, this might
be a good time to bring up an etymological puzzle:

Hakluyt wrote an account of Francis Drake's 1577-1580 raiding expedition.
One of the ships he captured was known as the "Cacafuego", apparently because
it carried more than the usual amount of cannon for a treasure ship.

I'm not sure of the best translation of "Cacafuego".  Reference [1] says
"shitfire".  Other books translate it as "spitfire", although my
Spanish-English dictionary says the Spanish for "to spit" is "escupir"
(cognate to "sputum") or "expectorar".  It also gives a Spanish verb cacarear
"to cackle, to boast".

The edition of Hakluyt's book I read (I don't know what edition) does not
contain the word "Spitfire".  However, there is a quote in the book about
someone on Drake's ship saying the Cacafuego should be renamed the
"Spit-silver", referring to the vast qunatity of silver on the ship.  This
play on words makes no sense unless the Cacafuego was referred to on Drake's
ship as the "Spitfire".

(Note: in the 16th Century every Spanish ship had an official name, which was
something religious e.g. "Santa Maria", plus a nickname such as "Pinta" or
"Nin~a".  The official name of the Cacafuego was something like "Nuestra Dama
de la Concepcion".)

OED2 gives the following dates for "spitfire":
adj "hot-tempered" 1600
noun "cannon"  1611
noun "quick-tempered person" 1680

Is it possible that all of these are derived from Drake's crew's English
rendering of "Cacafuego"?

       - Jim Landau

Reference [1]: Harry Kelsey _Sir Francis Drake: The Queen's Pirate_ New
Haven: Yale University Press, 1998, ISBN 0-300-07182-5, page 158 and
footnotes on pages 465-6.

Kelsey references British Library, Harley MS 280, folios 84-86.
Unfortunately I failed to note what was in these particular folios.

    "spitfire" (p. 1138) is given the date 1680.  This is a century too late.
 It is in fact the English translation of  Spanish "Cacafuego", which was the
nickname of a heavily-armed Spanish treasure ship captured by Francis Drake
(not yet Sir Francis) on his 1577-1580 expedition.

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