Thursday, March 31, 2011

The Fair-Weather Umbrella

Things that occur to me on the drive home: English-speakers use two words to refer to the devices we carry around to block out the weather, and neither traces its etymology back to the purpose we’d most probably think of first. I’m talking about umbrellas. The word umbrella goes back to the Latin umbra, “shade,” so an umbrella, etymologically speaking, is a little, portable shade you carry around. However, when we use the word today, we immediately associate it with rain. The types that block out the sun might actually be called shade umbrellas, at least when they’re not being called parasols, which I guess would refer less often to the large porch-spanning variety and more often to the lightweight umbrellas that ladies might use to shield their faces from the sun. But parasol, etymologically speaking, means ultimately what umbrella does: “protection from the sun” — from the Italian para-, “protection against,” and sole, “sun.” I know etymology doesn’t dictate meaning, but I still think it’s interesting that the two words we ended up using for these things didn’t originally have any connection with the very useful function of keeping rain off our heads.

In French, if I understand correctly, the popular word is parapluie, with that second part meaning “rain.” Spanish has parasol and paraguas. And the German has Sonnenschirm and Regenschirm, with just Schirm, “screen,” being a catch-all — or, if you want to complicate this, an umbrella term — for the generic device, irrespective of whether it’s used in sun or in rain. Actually, now that I think of it, I wonder how universally a language’s word for umbrella has the extended meaning of “an overarching thing or concept.” Because if you’ve ever seen one — again, regardless of what you use it for — it makes for a handy metaphor.

Final wonderment: Why didn’t bumbershoot ever catch on?

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