The word actual is a false friend between the Spanish and the English languages. When we say in Spanish "la hora actual" we really mean "the current time" and not "the actual time". So in Spanish we use the word actual to speak about things happening in the present time. In English the word actual is used to speak about things that exist in fact or reality, but you can use the word to refer to things that existed in the past, and not only in the present. So there's quite a difference between them.

But when it comes to the etymology for both words, ultimately they both come from Late Latin actuālis. So just out of curiosity, what was actually (pun intended) the meaning and use of the word actuālis in Late Latin? Was it closer to the current Spanish meaning or to the English one? Or did it mean something completely different and the current Spanish and English meanings just derived from that?

5 Answers 5


I'll try to answer my own question, if I may. After a bit of research I discovered that no more than 300 years ago the meaning of Spanish actual was actually the same as English actual, as seen by this definition found in a Spanish dictionary from 1726:

ACTUAL. Lo que real y verdaderamente existe al tiempo que se dice, ò enuncia.

Translated: "what is real and in fact exists at the same time it is said". The dictionary proposes the following citation as an example:

La segunda cosa que se requiere es actuál devolución.

Translated: "The second thing required is an actual repayment". Note that this cannot be translated as "a current repayment" as the sentence speak about something that may (or not) happen in the future. So the use of actual in Spanish three centuries ago was aligned with the current use of actual in English.

The same dictionary also says:

Viene del latino Actualis, que significa esto mismo.

Translated: "It comes from Latin Actualis, with the same meaning".

So my conclussion is that Late Latin actuālis meant the same as the current English actual, and that the Spanish actual derived to another meaning during the latest 300 years, as stated by fdb's answer.

  • 7
    "I'll try to answer my own question, if I may". You may. In fact, it is encouraged, as it will help others who read this question in future .
    – Mawg
    Commented Sep 3, 2018 at 13:35
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    @Mawg thank you! In fact I knew that, I am a very avid user of the Spanish language stack. I wrote that just because I didn't feel confident enough to write an answer in a stack about a language I don't know much about. :-)
    – Charlie
    Commented Sep 3, 2018 at 13:44
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    If you did the research and are sure that what you found will help others, then of course you should not just post, but also accept, your own answer.
    – Mawg
    Commented Sep 3, 2018 at 14:09
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    @Mawg The stack loves Q&A and don't discriminate authorship. If the knowledge base improved, everyone won. see this meta and straight from the horse's (Jeff's) mouth. And Charlie gets two upvotes!! Commented Sep 3, 2018 at 14:13
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    That's the same on every other site :-)
    – Mawg
    Commented Sep 3, 2018 at 14:14

Per Lewis & Short:

actŭālis , e, adj. id.,
I. active, practical, Macr. Somn. Scip. 2, 17.—Adv.: ac-tŭālĭter , actively, Myth. Vatic. vol. 3, p. 181 ed. Bod.

So it wasn't particularly close to either the English or the Spanish word actual.

As an aside, the Oxford English Dictionary records usage of actual in English in the sense of (modern) actual in Spanish, claiming that it was originally a Scottish usage and is now rare, but providing such examples as

1525 King James V in Rep. Univ. Comm., St. Andrews (1837) 180. The rector, regentis, and actuall studentis within the said Universite.

To try to bring this back on topic, OED also comments on the etymology (although without specific sources):

post-classical Latin actualis active, practical, exhibited in deeds (5th cent.), real, existing (from 13th cent. in British sources), current, effective at the time (14th cent. in a British source), (of a cautery) performed using a cauterizing agent having the form of a red-hot implement (14th cent.)

suggesting that in late Mediaeval Latin, at least in British sources, it could be used with either the modern English or the modern Spanish meaning.

  • I also found this meaning in Latin dictionaries but note that I ask for the meaning of the word in Late Latin. Does this meaning apply to Late Latin or was it used in previous centuries?
    – Charlie
    Commented Sep 3, 2018 at 20:51
  • Macr. Somn. Scip. refers to Ambrosius Theodosius Macrobius' Commentariorum in Somnium Scipionis, which was written sometime around 400 AD, well into the Late Latin period. Commented Sep 3, 2018 at 20:55

In philosophy and theology there is a core distinction between potentiality and actuality. This distinction is originally from Greek philosophy, but can also found in medieval Christian theology (e.g. in Aquinas). The Latin terms are actus et potentia. Actus, in this philosophical position, refers to actual being, in immediate opposition to potentia, which means in potentiality. Potentia made its way into both English and Spanish carring the same meaning.

In other words, within this philosophical and theological tradition, actus (and therefore actualis) was used in its English meaning.

  • This concept is important to understand how "actualis"/"actual" changed its meaning from "active" to the modern ones, but could you expand the linguistic consequences? Do you know how did the "philosophical" meaning replace the "behavioral" (relative to human actions)?
    – Pavel V.
    Commented Sep 4, 2018 at 13:53
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    @PavelV. Are you referring to the English word "action"? Both seem to be different developments from the verb ago. E.g. see actio.
    – luchonacho
    Commented Sep 4, 2018 at 14:08
  • yes. The other answers suggest that the original meaning of "actualis" was closer to "action" than to "act" as the metaphysical concept, or at least somewhere in between. The modern meaning of "actual" in English or Spanish is clearly derived from "act", so I wonder when did this shift happen.
    – Pavel V.
    Commented Sep 7, 2018 at 7:31

Latin actualis first occurs in Macrobius (5th century AD), who uses it to mean “active, efficient”. This is also the original meaning of French actuel. The shift of meaning to “present, current” happened in French at a very late date (apparently in the 19th century) and it was borrowed in this meaning from French into other languages such as Spanish and German.

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    I believe you but, could you spare some time to source it?
    – Rafael
    Commented Sep 3, 2018 at 12:37
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    @Rafael. cnrtl.fr/etymologie/actuel or any other etymological dictionary.
    – fdb
    Commented Sep 3, 2018 at 12:39

Online Etymology Dictionary (English) says:

actual (adj.)

early 14c., "pertaining to acts or an action;" late 14c. in the broader sense of "real, existing" (as opposed to potential, ideal, etc.); from Old French actuel "now existing, up to date" (13c.), from Late Latin actualis "active, pertaining to action," adjectival form of Latin actus "a doing" (from PIE root *ag- "to drive, draw out or forth, move").

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