Few cannot be aware of the naming of comparatively recent instruments - such as the sousaphone, after John Philip Sousa, and the moog synthesizer, from Robert Moog – but what about more traditional instruments? Where did their names originate? Purely for ease of reference these are listed in alphabetical order.
Balalaika – is a difficult one for it appears to have no etymological value whatsoever. While the first reference is found in a Russian document dated 1688, the very similar term balabaika is also used in Ukrainian records shortly afterwards. One theory suggests it was loaned to both from one of the many sub-languages – there are twenty-seven in Russia and eighteen in Ukraine alone - found throughout this region probably wherever the instrument was first developed.
Banjo – came through the southern US term bandore but is ultimately from the Greek pandoura, a three-stringed lute.
Bassoon – a late-ish instrument of the oboe family. It’s low pitch meant the use of the Italian basso as the basis of the name.
Bouzuki – is a Greek stringed instrument borrowed from the Turkish ‘bozuk’ which means ‘broken’ or sometimes ‘modified’. Here the later seems more likely as the original instrument was formed from a solid block of wood but later modified into the instrument we see today.
Bugle – from the Middle English and Old French words for ‘buffalo’, presumably the idea was the instrument resembled the water buffalo in some way.
Castanets – derived from the shape the Spanish castaneta is ultimately from the Latin castanea or ‘chestnut’, this small concave piece of wood was thought to resemble the chestnut.
Cello – an abbreviation of violoncello, it being a member of the violin family and explained under its family name.
Clavichord – an instrument produced from the fifteenth century and named from the Latin clavis ‘key’ and chorda ‘string’, which is exactly how the instrument is played.
Cornet – named from the shape, not because it resembles something to hold ice-cream but through Middle English from Old French and ultimately from Latin cornu or ‘horn’.
Cymbals – an instrument which has been used at least since its first record of use by the Assyrians some six thousand years ago, although the name is from the Green kumbos meaning ‘cup’.
Drum – undoubtedly the oldest instrument, evidence of drums have been found from Neolithic times, yet the word is comparatively recent from the Late German trommel.
Euphonium – a wind instrument related to the tuba whose name derives from the Greek euphonos ‘pleasant sound’.
Glockenspiel – a recent instrument, not seen until the nineteenth century, and derived from the German for ‘bell play’.
Guitar – a surprisingly modern term for an instrument which is certainly much older than the name. A 3,300-year-old carving of a Hittite playing a stringed instrument is the oldest known, although that particular item is referred to as a chordophone. English ‘guitar’, German ‘gitarre’, Spanish ‘guitarra’, Arabic ‘qitara’, and even Latin ‘cithara’ are all thought to originate from the Ancient Greek ‘kithara’, itself a kind of lute with just two strings.
Jew’s harp – suggestions that this should be jaw’s harp are untrue as the instrument existed thousands of years before the word ‘jaw’ was ever heard. In the same way the term Jew’s harp is also nothing to do with the Jews for the instrument was almost certainly known well before the Jews were called such and no link between the two has ever been found.
Lute – brought to Europe by the Moors when they came to Spain in the eleventh century, the name can be traced to the Arabic al-ud meaning literally ‘the wood’.
Lyre – from the Macedonian Greek ruratae meaning ‘the lyricists’ and thus named for those who produced the words which were accompanied by lyre.
Oboe – named from the French haut bois ‘high wood’.
Ocarina – this egg-shaped instrument is named for its appearance, coming from Italian oca or ‘goose’.
Panpipe – named from their association with the Greek god Pan but certainly not their original name as this simple instrument was certainly known in Neolithic times.
Piano – originating in piano e forte, Italian meaning ‘soft and loud’, a good description of the qualities of this instrument.
Piccolo – another of Italian derivation, here the name describes the ‘small flute’.
Sackbut – the precursor of the trombone, this was named from its resemblance to an earlier weapon known as a saqueboute which described its use to pull riders from the saddle.
Saxophone – invented in 1840 by Adolphe Sax.
Sistrum – a jingling percussion instrument known to the Egyptians and named by them from their word meaning ‘to shake’.
Sitar – ultimately from the Persian and Urdu, itself composed of two words: sih ‘three’ and tar ‘string’.
Tambourine – actually gives the opportunity to define two instruments. The tambourine is derived from the tambour, the circular frame used to hold embroidery and to which small cymbals were attached to produce a tambourine. The tambour was named as it resembled the tabor, a small percussion instrument from the Persian tabira meaning ‘drum’.
Trumpet – from the Old French trompette which simply describes the flared shape at the larger end.
Tuba – derived from the Italian for ‘trumpet’.
Ukulele – a name which is derived from the Hawaiian meaning ‘jumping flea’, possibly because of the movement of the fingers when it is played. However, there is a traditional explanation that it comes from the nickname of one of the best players of the ukulele. One Edward William Purvis, an officer of King Kalakaua, was apparently known as ‘jumping flea’ because of his small stature and his propensity for fidgeting.
Violin – thought to ultimately derived from the Latin verb vitulari meaning ‘be joyful’.
Xylophone – known by the ninth century in Africa, its popularity in Europe grew from the fifteenth century. The modern name is derived from the Greek xulon ‘wood’ + phone.
I would welcome any suggestions for themes or subjects, or even specific words to examine the origins, meanings and etymologies. I’d be delighted to hear from you.