Sunday, 23 April 2017

Musical Terms

Whilst invigilating for a music exam a few weeks ago, the young man for whom I was acting as reader and scribe came out with several expressions. Some of these I would never have thought related to music, others I had never heard before.

As usual, I was more interested in how the terms developed and in the original usage and meaning.

Accidental - in a musical sense not used since 1868 when it was coined to describe a passage where the note changes without essentially changing the key of the passage. If you have no idea what that means you're not alone. What is clearer is this comes from 'accident', itself traceable to Proto-Indo-European kad or 'to make fall'.

Accompany - seen in a musical sense since 1744, only 13 years after it had first been used in an heraldic sense. Derived from 'companion', this can also be traced to Proto-Indo-European where pa meant 'to feed' and gave us recognisable words in Latin and French where panis and pain respectively mean 'bread'.

Adagio - first seen in a musical sense in 1746, the instruction to play 'slowly, leisurely, gracefully' has an identical origin to 'adjacent', both can be traced to Proto-Indo-European ye 'to throw, impel' - which suggests quite the opposite!

Air - used in a musical sense since 1580, it shares an origin with 'aria' (see below)

Allegro - musically 'brisk, sprightly, cheerful' and used since 1721. It originates in a Proto-Germanic term meaning 'zeal, eagerness' and is thought to have roots meaning 'wander, roam'.

Alto - means 'high' and seen since 1784, this began as Proto-Indo-European al 'to grow, nourish'.

Andante - seen since 1742, it means 'moderately slow', coming from a Latin root ambire 'to go round'. This origin would never have occurred to ABBA when they released the album Super Trouper containing the song Andante, Andante when it went round and round at 33rpm.

Arabesque - of Moorish or Arabic design and seen since 1786, it is from the Italian word for an Arab, itself thought to mean 'inhabitant of the desert'.

Aria - is literally the Italian for 'air'. The English word is ultimately from Proto-Indo-European awer, which meant 'sky' as much as 'atmosphere'. It has also given us words meaning 'raising', 'mist', 'haze', 'clouds', 'artery' and 'bright'.

Arpeggio - since 1742 and meaning 'harping' which has the same origin as 'harp' (see below).

Bagatelle - 'a trifle' and used musically since 1827. It has the same origin as 'bag', itself of uncertain etymology but thought to be related to 'belly' and 'bellows'.

Baritone - a deeper male voice and the reason it is related to Proto-Indo-European gwere 'heavy' and ten 'to stretch'.

Bass - in use since 1590, the etymology can be traced to the same root as 'base' which comes from Latin bassus 'thick, stumpy, low' and ultimately from Proto-Indo-European gwa 'to go, come'.

Beat - musically since 1842, it has the same origin as the sense 'to thrash' which comes from Proto-Indo-European bhau 'to strike'.

Bow - the earlist musical bows were curved, like the bow of an archer. Used since 1570, this shape is the reason the origin is Proto-Indo-European bheug 'bent'.

Bridge - a musical bridge contrasts with the main theme and, as the name suggests, connects them. Not seen until the late 19th century, it comes as no surprise to find it shares an origin with the more common sense and is derived from Proto-Indo-European bhru 'log, beam'.

Cadenza - musically since 1836, it is the passage near the close of a song and shares an origin with 'accidental' (see above).

Carol - a 'joyful song' and coined around the end of the 13th century when it was also used to refer to 'a dance in a ring'. Both originate in the Latin choraules 'flute player' and ultimately, which shares an origin with 'chorus', from Proto-Indo-European gher 'to grasp, enclose'. Not until the end of the 16th century was the term used to refer to a song associated with Christmas.

Chord - shares an origin with 'cord' in the Greek khorde 'gut-string, tripe' and ultimately from Proto-Indo-European ghere 'gut, entrail' from which musical strings were once produced.

Coda - seen since 1753, this is derived from Latin cauda 'animal tail' and chosen as the coda is the concluding passage in a musical composition.

Composition - ultimayely the same as 'compose', this can be traced to com 'with' and poser which shares an origin and meaning with 'pause' and therefore the meaning of 'compose', seen today in a creative sense, began in the sense 'cease'.

Concert - since the 16th century and from a word meaning 'harmony', this comes from a Latin verb cernere 'seperate, distinguish' and ultimately from Proto-Indo-European krei 'discriminate, distinguish' and has exactly the same origin as 'crisis'.

Conduct - is of Latin origin and means 'to bring together' and ultimately from the Proto-Indo-European deuk 'to lead'.

Flat - seen in music since 1670, it comes from Proto-Indo-European plat 'to spread'.

Harp - taken from the name of the instrument which, sadly, is of unknown origin. However it is thought to be related to the Old English harpa meaning 'instrument of torture' - clearly the harp was once confused with the bagpipes.

Instrumental - from the Latin instruere 'arrange, furnish', this has an identical origin to the word 'structure' and is derived from the Proto-Indo-European stere 'to extend, spread, stretch out'.

Key - musically since 1630, and ultimately from Proto-Germanic ki 'to cleave, split'.

Major - not seen musically until 1797, it comes from the Latin magnus 'great' and Proto-Indo-European meg with identical meaning.

Minor - also seen musically since 1797, the term comes to English from Latin minores and Proto-Indo-European mei 'small'.

Note - seen musically from the end of the 13th century, here the earliest origin we can find is Latin gnoscere 'to know'.

Opera - musically since 1640, it comes from Proto-Indo-European op 'to work' and also 'to produce in abundance'.

Overture - used to mean 'an opening' before the musical snse in 1660. Here the origin is Proto-Indo-European ap 'away' and wer 'to cover'.

Piano - effectively means 'soft', the name first used for the instrument from 1803. It shares an origin with the carpentry tool, the 'plane', in meaning 'flat'.

Pitch - musically since 1670, it is related to 'prick' and shares an origin meaning 'pointed, dagger'.

Scale in a musical sense since 1590, it comes from the Latin scala 'ladder' and ultimately from Proto-Indo-European skand 'spring, leap, climb'.

Score - not seen in a musical sense until 1839, the term is ultimately Proto-Indo-European and from sker meaning 'cut' and sharing an origin with 'scissors' and 'shears'.

Sharp - 1570 was the first year when it was used musically, it shares an origin with 'score' (see above).

Solo - first seen in 1690, this is from Latin solus and Proto-Indo-European swo meaning 'so' and also the root of 'as' and 'himself'.

String - was first known in a musical sense to mean 'to tune someone or something' and ultimately from Proto-Indo-European strenk 'tight, narrow'.

Suite - in a musical sense from 1680, it shares an origin with 'suit' used in both a clothing and playing card sense. This originates in Proto-Indo-European sekw 'to follow'.

Theme - not used musically until 1929, this comes from Proto-Indo-European dhe-mn 'to set'.

Tone - musically since the middle of the 14th century, this shares an origin with 'baritone' in Proto-Indo-European ten 'to stretch'.

These, for the most part, quite unrelated origins were not unexpected but at least I now have a reason for my addagios not being graceful, my piano playing sounding flat, and plucking the strings of a harp being considered torture.

Sunday, 16 April 2017


Trying out different fonts recently I admit before long I was bemused by the vast array now available. Their names, too, are rather confusing but clearly will have little etymological value as, in the main they have been created comparatively recently.

Yet I did think it might be a nice idea to find the origins of the words now used for fonts and typefaces. What follows is but a selection. Antique - is first used in English around the start of the 16th century and first seen as an adjective. It comes to us through a Latin line and ultimately comes from two Proto-Indo-European words anti 'before' and okw 'appearance'.

Baskerville - one of the few named as a typeface, this created around 1750 and named for British type-founder and printer John Baskerville (1706-75). He was not the inspiration for the famous story by Arthur Conan Doyle.

Bembo - named and first used in 1930 and based on a 15th century typeface by Aldus Manutius when printing a work penned by the Venetian scholar, poet, cardinal and member of the Knights Hospitallier, Pietro Bembo (1470-1547).

Bauhaus - a German word meaning literally 'architecture house' and a reference to the school of design founded in Weimar by Walter Gropius in 1919.

Bodoni - based on and named after Italian printer Giambattista Bodoni (1740-1813), the modern version is a composite of his many forms.

Cascade - a word coming to English from Latin cascata 'waterfall' and ultimately from Proto-Indo-European kad 'fall, lay out'. Note the use as a verb began in 1702 and used to refer to 'vomit'.

Clarendon - named after the Clarendon press at Oxford University, set up 1713 in the Clarendon Building and named for the Chancellor Edward Hyde, 1st Earl of Clarendon.

Doric - an architectural style and an adjective derived from Dorian, itself the Greek meaning 'of Doris' a district in central Greece and itself named for Doros the legendary ancestor of the Dorians. The name Doros comes from Proto-Indo-European do 'to give'.

Garamond - named in 1780 after French type-founder Claude Garamond (1510-61). His work saw him producing the punches used to make the type.

Goudy - named in 1917 after the typographer Fredeic W. Goudy (1865-1947). This Chicago man, a realtor his entire working life, and by his own admittance a very poor realtor, changed direction at the age of 40 and left his name in a family of typefaces featuring no less than 113 different styles.

Hanseatic - takes the name of the federation of German towns, the Hanseatic League, of the 17th century. It derives it name from the Middle Low German for 'merchants' guild'.

Korinna - is a Greek word meaning 'maiden'.

Melior - is a Latin word meaning 'better' and comes from Proto-Indo-European mel 'strong, great, numerous'.

Quorum - is Latin and means 'of whom'.

Roman - clearly named for the upright style of lettering, but of greater interest is the French word roman which means 'novel'.

Sunday, 9 April 2017


Now anyone who has read my blog before will not be surprised to learn I'm looking at the origins of their names, not the religions themselves.

Christianity describes one as a follower of Christ and thus takes that name. Following this back in time we find this as a Germanic translation of Greek khristos meaning 'the anointed', a translation of the Hebrew mashiah and from the Greek verb khriein 'to rub'.

Buddhism, again clearly derived from Buddha, takes the name meaning 'awakened, enlightened'. This comes from budh 'to awake, to know' and related to the Sanskrit bodhati 'observes, understands' and sharing a root with English 'bode' meaning 'proclaim, foretell'.

Hindiusm is from the Persian word Hindu meaning 'Indian' and used both as an adjective and a noun. This in turn came from Sanskrit sindhu 'river' and specifically the Indus river and thus these were 'the region of the Indus'.

Judaism can be traced through the Old French Judaisme, to Latin Judaismus, and to Greek Ioudaios or 'Jew'. In turn this comes from the Hebrew yY'hudah meaning literally 'celebrated' and traditionally held to be the name of Jacob's fourth son from whom all Jews are descended.

Islam is an Arabic word meaning 'submission', this to the will of God. It comes from the root aslama meaning 'he resigned, surrendered, submitted', this is related to salima 'he was safe' and related to salam 'peace'.

Taoism is a religious system founded by Lao Tzu in the 19th century. Here the basis is Chinese tao or 'way, path, right way (of life)' and also 'reason'.

Shintoism is a religious system heralding from Japan and dating from the early 18th century. The term comes from the Chines shin tao, translated as 'way of the gods'.

Polytheism is a belief in many gods, the name from the Greek polytheos. This can be taken further to the Proto-Indo-European pele 'to fill' which has given a word meaning 'plenty' in many languages. There is also the Greek theo, again to be traced to Proto-Indo-European and the root dhes which has given many religious concepts in many languages including Latin feriae, festus and fanum meaning 'holidays', 'festive' and 'temple' respectively.

Sunday, 2 April 2017

Roman Towns in Britain

Many will know how place names ending in -cester or -chester show they were former Roman towns. Until comparatively recently this was attributed to the Romans themselves, where the Latin castra or 'fort' had produced the name. Yet records show these settlements were not known as -cesters or -chesters until after the Romans had left. Further proof of a different origin comes in the form of Old English, the language of the Anglo-Saxons, where caester meant very specifically 'a former Roman stronghold'. Thus could not have been named until after the Romans departure because of (a) the specific meaning and (b) the language was not known in Britain until after the Romans had left.

The following list of Roman towns give the modern name and that used by the Romans, along with a definition wherever possible.

Bath is an Old English name, this clearly referring to 'the Roman baths'. The Romans referred to the place as Aquae Sulis, this 'the waters of Sulis'. The place was already a shrine to the Celtic goddess Sulis, the Romans seeing similarities with their goddess Minerva and always keen to adopt as many gods as possible (one can never have too many gods), a goddess perceived as the life-giving mother goddess. Further information on Bath and nearby place names can be found in my Somerset Place Names.

Canterbury speaks of itself as 'the stronghold of the people of Kent'. To the Romans it was Durovernum Cantiacorum, here the Romans referred to the former British tribe, the Cantiaci, residing at Durou ernon or 'stronghold by the alder grove'. All this is covered in my book East Kent Place Names.

Carlisle is a an old British name meaning 'the (place) of a man called Luguvalos'. The Celtic term cair added to the personal name, much as the Romans did when they called this place Luguvallum. Further information in my Cumbria Place Names.

Chelmsford comes from 'the ford of a man called Ceolmaer', while the Romans knew this as Caesaromagus or 'the market place of Caesar'. See my Essex Place Names.

for further information. Chester simply uses the basic Old English caester or 'former Roman stronghold' with no additions. For the Romans this was Deva Victrix, the Latin referring to the goddess who also gave a name to the River Dee, with Viictrix simply meaning 'victorious' and all seen in Cheshire Place Names.

Cirencester tells us it was 'the former Roman stronghold known as Corinion, the origin of which is uncertain but may share an origin with the River Churn in ultimately referring to a tribe known as the Cornovii. It is known several tribes throughout the land were known as such, the meaning is unclear but could mean 'the people of the horn' and refer to the shape of the land they occupied. These and more in Gloucestershire Place Names by, of course, me!

Colchester is 'the former Roman stronghold on the Colne', Camulodunum to the Romans who knew this as 'the stronghold of the Camulos' a Celtic deity seen as the equivalent of the Roman Mars with more information in my Essex Place Names.

Doncaster is 'the former Roman stronghold on the River Don', a British river name meaning simply 'water'. To the Romans this was Danum for the same reason, with information on the place in my South Yorkshire Place Names and on the river name in English River Names by the same author.

Dover, or Dubris to the Romans, is found in my East Kent Place Names where you will discover both originate in the British name for the River Dour, where dubras simply meant 'water'.

Exeter also owes its present name to the river on which it stands, the present name speaking of 'the former Roman stronghold on the Exe' with the river name again meaning simply 'water', while the Roman name of Isca Dumnoniorum describes the river as 'full of fish' being where the people known as the Dumnonians or 'people of the vales'. You can find more information on this and neighbouring place names in my South Devon Place Names.

Gloucester, which is the county town found in Gloucestershire Place Names, has the modern name referring to 'the former Roman stronghold called Glevum, which is exactly what the Roman name was for the Celtic settlement named as the 'bright place'.

Lancaster and the Roman name of Lunecastrum share an origin in the river on which the fortification stands - Oold English caester and Latin castrum both refer to the Roman fortification, albeit the former in the past tense. The river name, as discussed in my English River Names, comes from a British term meaning 'healthy, pure', while the Lancashire town can be found in Lancashire Place Names.

Leicester speaks of itself as 'the former Roman stronghold of the Ligore, a tribal name of unknown origins. The Romans knew the place as Ratae Coritanorum, the first element meaning 'ramparts' and the latter the tribal name of Corieltauvians, again of unknown origins as is discussed in my Leicestershire Place Names.

Lincoln, as found in my Lincolnshire Place Names, was known to the Romans as Lindum Colonia was known as the linduo colonia or 'the pool of the Roman colony (for retired legionaries)'.

London is often said to be 'the place of a man called Londinos', but just who that person was is unknown, as was it to the Romans whose form of Londinium shares an origin but was equally uncertain. A deeper look into the alternative meanings of the name is found in my Middlesex Place Names.

Manchester is traditionally a city of Lancashire, and is therefore covered by my Lancashire Place Names where we see 'the former Roman stronghold near the mamm or breast-shaped hill' was known as Mancunium by the Romans, a name of identical meaning.

Newcastle speaks for itself, although note this castle is 'new' which tells us it replaced an earlier feature. To the Romans this was Pons Aelius, this meaning 'the bridge of Aelius', this the clan or family name of the Emperor Hadrian. More information can be found in my Northumberland Place Names.

Pevensey is an Old English name meaning 'the river of a man called Pefen'. To the Romans this was Anderitum which, as discussed in my East Sussex Place Names, simply means 'the great ford'.

Rochester, found in my West Kent Place Names, is 'the former Roman stronghold called Hrofi'. This is not a personal name but badly corrupted form of the earlier name of Durobrivis, the Roman version Durobrivae, both meaning 'the walled town with bridges'.

St Albans, as found in my Hertfordshire Place Names, is named as 'the holy place of St Alban', this the saint martyred here in AD 209. Earlier this had been Verulamium, this possibly referring to 'the tribe of the broad hand'..

Salisbury refers to itself as 'the stronghold at Sorvio', hence for the Romans this was Sorviodunum. As discussed in my Wiltshire Place Names, the etymological trail ends here.

Winchester refers to itself as 'the former Roman stronghold called Venta' and known as Venta Belgarum to the Romans. Here the venta or 'town' was associatd with the tribe known as the Belgae, who not only gave their name to modern Belgium but also gave us a series of Brythonic and Gaulish derived words fundamentally telling us they had a reputaion for being angry. Find out more in Hampshire Place Names.

Worcester or 'the former Roman stronghold of the Weogora is found in my Worcestershire Place Names.Here the name of the tribe is shown to come from 'the people of the winding river', while the Roman name of Wigornia has identical origins.

Wroxeter, found in my Shropshire Place Names, speaks of 'the Roman stronghold of the Uriconio. Known to the Romans as Virconium, both these early names have given us the modern name of Wrekin and derived from a personal name with a root meaning 'man wolf'..

Yarmouth, as discussed in my Isle of Wight Place Names, stands at the 'gravelly or muddy estuary'. To the Romans this was Magna Gernemutha, the same meaning but with the addition of magna or 'great'.

York, famously known to the Romans as Eboracum, will be covered in my forthcoming North Yorkshire Place Names, where the ancient Celtic name of Eborus is shown to refer to 'the place of the yew trees'.