Why “la manzana” is also “city block”
This is a really weird thing that people don’t explain very well when you learn Spanish from textbooks, but you sometimes see la manzana “apple” also listed as “city block”… the other word they use is la cuadra
First let me start with la cuadra because it’s much easier to explain. Latin America for the most part uses la cuadra; it has to do with “square”, the idea being that four streets make a city “block” as a square. Easy geometry.
So now there’s la manzana and that’s more common for Spain.
And when I was learning Spanish no one ever explained why it was “apple” or “city block”, but somehow we were told to remember it by thinking of “the Big Apple” like NY.
Anyway. The origin behind this word is really vague old Spanish.
The word it comes from in the context of “city block” is not “apple”… the word in older Spanish was mansana
In Spanish today the word manso/a is typically an adjective and it means “meek” or “docile” and you see it when you talk about animals, or the Bible los mansos heredarán la tierra “the meek shall inherit the earth”
But the term el manso means something very different in terms of feudal society. And it’s all about land terminology. In Spanish el feudo is “a fief” or “a fiefdom”, aka a land controlled by a feudal lord who was then subject to the baron/duke who was subject to a king and so on.
The aristocrats gave out los mansos to the peasants to work the field, a manso is best translated as “parcel (of land)”. The word manso here is related to the word “mansion” which is “the residence/domain of a lord”… so a manso is the land that a feudal lord would give out to be worked and people would live on the land and work it for them. Collections of mansos were called mansanas and the peasant farmers who worked the mansos earned money and provided services for the lord as subjects.
So the term mansana shifted over to manzana because S/Z are weird. The term had always had to do with a tenant farmer who deals with a land lord, and collections of their houses became manzanas “city blocks” which makes more sense if you assume that people were very much more agricultural before the Industrial era. Once the feudal system in Europe was more or less abolished, mansana became obsolete or linked with la manzana “apple” which comes from completely different etymology.
BTW manso/a meaning “meek” is the same word as el manso “parcel”; the two words came from an older Latin word meaning “to remain”. A docile animal would remain and not run away at the touch, and people built homes called “manses” and large ones were “mansions”, so they meant homes that were occupied by someone rather than an empty farm house. A “manse” is probably something similar to a “cottage” but very often became “abbeys” where a priest would live, and often farm communities had a priest nearby because Spain was ultra religious during the Medieval period especially during the rise of Isabel (and her husband Fernando, who were the Catholic Monarchs los reyes católicos) and leading into Spain becoming part of the Holy Roman Empire.
That’s probably a lot of info but I had the same exact question for YEARS so I did so much research on this. But la manzana for “city block” is more Spain.