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Varnish is the glossy protective layer applied to wooden furniture and other surfaces.
Tracing the reason its called varnish back through time takes us on some interesting twists and turns.
As much as 700 years ago English got the word varnish from French. The French word had come from a Latin source which in turn seems to have come from a Greek word that is said to have arisen because there was a city on the Mediterranean famed for its varnishes; or perhaps the first place that varnishes were sourced.
That city was known as Bernice or Berenike so in moving from Greek to Latin the “b” morphed to a “v.”
The city still stands though much changed. It is now called Benghazi and is the second biggest city in Libya. The current name is said to stem from a meaning of “descendants of Ghazi” where Ghazi is identified as a specific benefactor of the city but is an honorary title rather than a personal name and means “veteran” based on honored service in some military campaign.
The name Benghazi then isn’t a modification of the earlier name Berenike but a newer name replacing the old Greek one.
Berenike was a name bestowed on the port town to honor an Egyptian queen of 2300 years ago and her name in turn breaks down to two words meaning “bearer of victory”; Nike being the goddess of victory and the inspirer of shoe names.
The city had an even earlier Greek name that might explain why Berenike begot varnish. The place was first known as Hesperides, named after Greek mythological islands of the blessed. Today the region is a dry, dusty, gritty landscape but those thousands of years ago is said to have been home to resinous pine forests. That sounds a little more blessed. It was the resin from these forests that was used in making varnish.
Five days a week Charles Hodgson produces Podictionary – the podcast for word lovers, Thursday episodes here at OUPblog. He’s also the author of several books including his latest History of Wine Words – An Intoxicating Dictionary of Etymology from the Vineyard, Glass, and Bottle.