Happy National Umbrella Day, a tutti quanti!
Every February 10 marks this “national day” that probably passes most people by. But it’s a useful opportunity for umbrella manufacturers, wholesalers and retailers (umbrellists?) to market their wares and trumpet their amazing usefulness.
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In Britain, and even more so in Scotland, where I live, an umbrella is an absolute necessity–preferably a golf umbrella, or one of the same size. But even they often buckle or blow inside out when the cruel Scottish wind gets into a temper.
Never mind. It’s remarkable how the word for this everyday object, to which we probably don’t give too much thought as long as it functions effectively, goes all the way back to one of the languages from which, more than almost any other, English has “borrowed”, namely Latin.
As concisely and accurately as I can tell it, the story goes something like this:
- The Latin word for “shade” or “shadow” is umbra.
(That’s the word, incidentally, from which ultimately we also get the expression “to take umbrage”. Not to mention the botanical umbels, the shadowy penumbra, and the highly formal verb to adumbrate.)
But, lest I’m tempted to digress further, let’s get back to the main plot.
- The diminutive form of umbra in Latin was umbella, meaning a parasol or sunshade, and the word was already in existence in the 1st century CE. (It’s only our dreich climate that makes us inevitably associate umbrellas with rain rather than sun; think magnificent Indian rajahs riding an elephant and protected by a sunshade).
- In Late Latin, the letter r of the base word umbra was reinserted into umbella to give umbrella.
- Meanwhile, Latin umbra became **ombra in Italian, which, together with the diminutive suffix, became ombrella or ombrello.
- From there it passed into French, which is, apparently, the language from which we most immediately borrowed it, in the early 17th century.
(Which leaves me wondering what people did before then; life must have been so utterly miserable when it rained).
Some delightful early quotes
The OED lists several spellings, as almost invariably happens with loanwords. The main variants are the one that has become standard, umbrella (1609), umbrello (1611) and ombrella (before 1630).
I’ve put below some quotes in the OED that caught my eye:
From an early bilingual lexicographer, Randle Cotgrave, in his dictionarie of the French and English tongues (1611):
Ombrelle, an Vmbrello; a (fashion of) round and broad fanne, wherwith the Indians (and from them our great ones) preserue themselues from the heat of a scorching Sunne.
From the remarkable Somersetian writer and traveller Thomas Coryate, responsible, according to the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, for the first use of the word in English literature, here describing how Italians shielded themselves from the sun in his Crudities (which means here “undigested snippets”; 1611):
Many of them doe carry other fine things…, which they commonly call in the Italian tongue vmbrellaes…These are made of leather something answerable to the forme of a little cannopy & hooped in the inside with diuers little wooden hoopes that extend the vmbrella in a prety large compasse.
And John Donne, using the word as a metaphor, written in 1609, but not published until 1633:
We have an earthly cave, our bodies to go into by consideration, & coole our selves: and…wee have within us a torch, a soule, lighter and warmer then any without: we are therefore our owne umbrellas, and our owne Suns.
Then poet John Gay, he of The Beggar’s Opera, from Trivia (1716):
Good houswives…underneath th’Umbrella’s oily Shed,
Safe thro’ the wet on clinking Pattens tread.
Finally, from the “Sage of Concord”, Emerson, commenting on those strange people, the English, in English Traits (1856):
An Englishman walks in a pouring rain, swinging his closed umbrella like a walking-stick.
Keeping dry in other languages
The modern French for umbrella is parapluie, the first part being borrowed from Italian words, and conveying the idea of protection, the second being the word for…rain. A similar combination of ideas gives German Regenschirm (literally “rain screen” ). The modern Greek is simply ομπρέλα, (transliterated letter by letter = omprela).
From Mary Poppins to Rihanna
(or should that read from innocence to sexperience?)
Squeaky clean Mary Poppins’ miraculous flying umbrella had a parrot-head handle. Rihanna’s does not, but what she does with the umbrella could certainly make your head spin.
It’s noticeable, by the way, how she gives the word four syllables – um-buh-rel-luh – for the sake of the rhyme, in a linguistic process that goes by the name of anaptyxis.
Happy umbrella day! I hope nobody rains on your parade. Or, that if they do, you have an umbrella to hand.
(If you’d prefer something a bit more melodic on the theme of shade, you might like Handel’s celebrated and sublime aria Ombra mai fu, sung by the sublime Janet Baker.)
** Early in Canto I of the Inferno, as he starts on his journey, Dante asks Virgil who he is, using the word ombra:
Quando vidi costui nel gran diserto,
«Miserere di me», gridai a lui,
«qual che tu sii, od ombra od omo certo!».
Rispuosemi: «Non omo, omo già fui,
e li parenti miei furon lombardi,
mantoani per patrïa ambedui.»
When I beheld him in the desert vast,
“Have pity on me,” unto him I cried,
“Whiche’er thou art, or shade or real man!”
He answered me: “Not man; man once I was,
And both my parents were of Lombardy,
And Mantuans by country both of them.”
(I don’t know who this translation is by so can’t credit is as I should.)