Flutes and flatterers | OUPblog

By Anatoly Liberman

One of the most intriguing chapters in the science and pseudoscience of etymology is the names of musical instruments. Many of these names travel from country to country, and we are surprised when a word with romantic overtones reveals a prosaic origin. For example, lute comes from arabic (al’ud: the definite article followed by a word for “wood, wood”). Duncan Campbell Scott’s bewitching verses (“I have done. Put by the luth”) do not make us think of “wood”. In everyday life, it’s usually best not to know the derivation of the words we use. Harp and violin not better than lute. Both are, in my opinion, Germanic. The verb harp a sin nag on a note provides a clue to the etymology of the name harp (also think of harpoons) and phrases like play with something Where fiddle with shed light on how violin started his career. (Dictionaries claim that violin is borrowed from Romance vitule, corn vitule is, more likely, a loan from Germanic.) Harp and violin are unassuming and intimate words. They convey the idea of ​​plucking the strings or moving the bow (just call it nonsense) above them.

We can say a few curious things about flute (which, of course, has nothing to do with lute). contrary to violin, this word is certainly of Roman origin. The vowels differed and still differ from language to language (see the display at the end of this article), but fl and t remain constant, and that is fl- that deserves our attention. In many Indo-European languages, especially Germanic and Romance, initial fl-, bl-, and PL– have a sound symbolic or sound imitative value and are linked to words for flying, sinking, floating and blowing. Hence many puzzles. For example, running is a participle of latin creep “to flow.” At first glance, to flow and creep are congeners. However, they cannot belong together, because the Latin consonant corresponding to Engl. F turns out to be p, a sin Father ~ pater, not F, and, of course, we find Latin raining “To rain”, a perfect relation of to flow with regard to sound and meaning. What then should we do with creep in his relationship with to flow, a verb that rhymes with raining and belonging to the same semantic sphere? What is the origin of this confusion? No one has a definitive answer. In any case, the oft-repeated explanation that creep should be kept away from to flow, which changed its meaning under the influence of the Latin verb, is not based on any evidence. This is wishful thinking, because how do you show influence? The other explanation refers to the sound symbolism common to Latin and Germanic (the “fluidity” of fl-), but, although the healthy symbolism undoubtedly exists, when it comes to concrete cases, providing proof is a problem.

One can imagine that the wind instruments, including several varieties of flute, are among the oldest of all, since a kind of rush was widely available, and shepherds always needed hoses. Blowing a reed, like King Midas’ barber, and producing primitive music wouldn’t have been too difficult. According to another Greek myth, Athena invented a aulos, usually translated as “oboe”, but threw it away because it distorted her face (at least that’s what she thought). Although indifferent to romantic pursuits, she was quite particular about her beauty. The satyr Marsyas took the instrument and learned to play it so well that he challenged Apollo to a music competition. He lost, and the avenging god, who could not stand the competition, flhe said alive. Even though the aulos denoted the oboe, the verb auleo is translated in Greek dictionaries as “to play the flute or the flute”, which is not surprising, since the root of the word meant a hollow tube (those who wish to know more about this root can search alveolus ~ alveoli in English etymological dictionaries). Apparently, the idea behind the name of these instruments blew: compare Engl. the winds. In other languages, the notion of blowing in the generic name of the winds comes even more strongly to the fore. Whistling (as in Russian svirel ‘ “pipe”; stress on the last syllable) and chirping (as in pipe; Latin pipar “Chirp”) are also nearby. A phonetic variant of pipe is fife, related to Gaelic piob.

An illustration of the Pied Piper by Kate Greenaway from The Pied Piper of Hamelin, by Robert Browning, public domain via Project Gutenberg and Wikimedia Commons.

Of course, there can be other associations. Poet Vladimir Mayakovsky compared the flute, with its keys and vents, to the human spine, and the Romans called the flute tibia “tibia.” But the reference to the breath prevails, and where bldue appears, the group fl- are at proximity. Therefore, the stern conclusion of Dictionary of the century (at flute) should, I believe, be taken with a grain of salt: “Ultimate derivation unknown. The common derivation, through a supposed medieval Latin *flatulence, Latin flatus, a breath, a rocket… is untenable ”(an asterisk designates a form, reconstituted but not attested by writings; the great novel philologist Friedrich C. Diez wanted *flatulence to become *flute and thus produce the desired combination to stroll-). Not more than Murray think a lot about the flatulence idea. “Ultimate origin unknown” is what most modern dictionaries prefer to say about flute, although skeat remained at least in part elusive: “Of uncertain origin. the fl may have been suggested by latin to burst, blow. “This is a familiar motif: we have already witnessed the attempt to resolve the to flow ~ creep riddle in the same way.

Words imitating sounds tend to sound the same like people wearing the same uniform. However, belonging to the same regiment does not equate to blood relationship. “The ultimate origin” of flute is indeed unknown, but the word may be onomatopoeic. It is a rarely mentioned fact that English recognizes the flute as a tube or hollow channel. The connection can only be discerned in a past participle: a fluted column, for example, is a column decorated with flutes (sculpted vertical flutes).

Any instrument has the capacity to produce soft or hard notes. There is the dialect word Fladuse in lower (= north) German. It means “flattery”, from the archaic French expression sweet flute “Sweet flute”, supposedly forged under the influence (!) Of French flatter “flatter.” But couldn’t the idea of ​​soft sounds directly suggest flattery, without any “influence”? The origin of flatter has been hotly contested. I support the hypothesis that the word was coined in Germanic and meant “to fly around the person whose favor one wishes to obtain”, the French verb having been borrowed from Middle English. Beat, flutter, and flatter start with the group fl– that we find in flute. In English, unlike German, flute left a mocking echo. Rather probably, flout was taken from Middle Dutch. In modern Dutch, flout has the expected meaning “hissing; to play the flute ”, but several centuries ago this also meant“ to mock, to jibe ”; German pfeifen carries similar connotations. It only remains for me to list the many forms in which the word flute was recorded in ancient and modern Romance languages: flute, flute, flute, flahute, flavuto, frauto, flaguto…, corn flageolet apparently not related to any of them.

Its origin is (alas!) Unknown, but I find it hard to believe that the paths of to burst, flute, and flageolet have not crossed more than once. “Blow, winds, crack your cheeks!” rage! blow! ”But we will not leave the shelter of the wall and our secure corner, play sweet tunes, flatter the old gods and trample on the elements.

Anatoly Liberman is the author of Origins of words … and how we know them as good as An analytical dictionary of English etymology: an introduction. His column on the origin of words, The Oxford Etymologist, appears on the OUPblog every Wednesday. Send him your etymology question carefully [email protected]; he will do his best to avoid answering with “unknown origin”.

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