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‘Awning’ and ‘tarpaulin’

By Anatoly Liberman


The title of this post sounds like an introduction of two standup comedians, but my purpose is to narrate a story of two nautical words. The origin of one seems to be lost, the other looks deceptively transparent; but there may be hope. Both turned up in the seventeenth century: in 1624 (awning) and 1607 (tarpaulin) respectively.

The famous sailor Captain John Smith wrote (OED): “Wee did hang an awning (which is an old saile) to… trees to shadow us from the Sunne” (1624) and “A trar-pawling; or yawning” (1626). Since Smith found it necessary to explain what awning meant, he did not expect the word to be known to his readership. However, he had some reason to use it, for otherwise he would have made do with an old saile. Possibly, awning sounded more precise and more professional to him. In 1626 he wrote yawning instead of awning. A slip of the pen (quill)? Or did the printer, who had never seen the word before, replace it with the meaningless yawning? By contrast, trar is certainly a misprint for tarre, which occurs elsewhere.

Awning and tarpaulin appeared in print at approximately the same time, which perhaps suggests that a new way of processing canvas was introduced early in the seventeenth century or that advances in technology required new terms. Yet even if this guess proved true, we would not be closer to the origin of awning. The word does not look like any of its analogs in German and Dutch, while attempts to produce a viable Romance etymon for it didn’t result in a single good find. But if awning is English, we wonder why we cannot guess the elements of which it consists.

The French for ell is auln, or even better for our purposes, aun. In 1671, Stephen Skinner, one of our first etymologists, derived awning from au(l)ning. The phonetic match leaves nothing to be desired, but why should anyone use a measure of length to name a piece of sailcloth? Since Captain Smith said that the awning was hung to trees, in order to shadow the people from the sun, heave, haven, and heaven have been tried as the words that might lead us to awning. But even the most resourceful scholars (Frank Chance was among them) didn’t know how to get rid of the initial consonant; awning has never appeared as hawning. Quite naturally, the suffix caused little interest. It was the root that bothered scholars, though the addition of -ing also poses a problem.

I will skip the suggestions that awning is a borrowing from Hindi or Persian (the latter belongs to Skeat, but he soon gave it up) and other fanciful guesses. The only breakthrough seems to have occurred in 1862. In the area of English etymology, the main contemporary predecessor of Skeat was Hensleigh Wedgwood. Between 1859 and 1865, more than a decade before the publication of Skeat’s magnum opus, Wedgwood’s dictionary was appearing in installments. George P. Marsh, a distinguished American historical linguist, formed a high (partly undeservedly high) opinion of that work but also saw its numerous drawbacks. He discussed every installment in The Nation and decided to bring out an American edition of “Wedgwood” that would incorporate his corrections. Unfortunately, only the first volume (A through D) came out. His notes can be found in his successive reviews (see them in my Bibliography of English Etymology), but how many people, even professionally interested in word origins, have the time and energy to look through the issues of a weekly periodical, published a century and a half ago? Anyway, awning begins with the letter a, and the A-D volume (1862), though not common in libraries, is not too hard to obtain.

Awning and tarpaulin: which is which?

Marsh offered a French etymology of awning, which I will cite in the congested formulation of The Century Dictionary. Allegedly, awning was a reduction of auvening, from auven, from French auvent “a penthouse of a cloth before a shop-window,” as defined in A French and English Dictionary by Randle Cotgrave (1611). As we can see, the timing is perfect; with Cotgrave, as with Captain Smith, we are at the beginning of the seventeenth century. Wedgwood found Marsh’s idea convincing and, although he did not reject his own original etymology, added auvent as a more likely source of awning. But he did not mention Marsh, and since 1872, the year the second edition of Wedgwood’s dictionary appeared, the improved etymology has been known as his. Even Skeat and Murray don’t seem to have known its true authorship.

Although clever and ingenious, Marsh’s idea is less than fully convincing. The posited intermediate forms (auvening and auven) have not been attested, and auvent has never been used as a nautical term. For these reasons, Ernest Weekley offered his own hypothesis. He cited Italian alona, Spanish olona, and so forth “sailcloth.” Cotgrave also has olonne “canvas for the sayle of a ship.” Weekley believed that “aulone…, instead of olonne, may have been mixed up with another aulonne, aulomne, which… is a woollen cloth named for Alonne in Beauce.” “I suggest, as a pure conjecture,” he added “that it is the origin of the awn- in awning, and that the latter is a sailor’s corruption of an unrecorded aulonning.” (Note how close aulonning is to Skinner’s au(l)ning. Weekley consulted Skinner but owned nothing to his reconstruction.) As time went on, he must have felt disillusioned with his idea, because in his dictionary, published fifteen years later, he only said “of unknown origin.”

As a general rule, all the involved etymologies are wrong, though, to be sure, exceptions exist (compare my summer post on apricot). On the other hand, very simple, naive derivations are also suspicious and smack of folk etymology. Wedgwood, a great master of obscure allusions, wrote in passing that awning should be compared with Danish avn “awn,” without explaining how exactly the two should be compared. Did he mean that an awn, a bristle on a grass spike, hangs like an awning suspended from its support? As early as 1826, John Thomson, the author of the otherwise useless book Etymons of English Words, derived awning from awn, because both, in their different ways, are coverings or hulls. Wedgwood of course knew the book.  Perhaps that is all there is to it, even though Thomson’s derivation is almost too good to be true.

The word probably came into limited use around the time of Captain Smith’s expedition (the fact emphasized by the gloss “an old saile”), and in the 1620s it may have been nautical slang. We have no way of knowing whether it was coined by his crew and gained popularity among other sailors (a rather unlikely supposition) or whether his men picked it up from somebody else. A Romance etymology carries little conviction, because a nautical term borrowed from French could be expected to surface earlier and resemble its source more closely.

Tarpaulin (the word, not the thing) may be less opaque, but some doubts prevail. Skeat, however, had none. The word, he says “means tarred pauling or tarred palling; a palling is a covering, from the verb pall, to cover.” But the OED is more cautious: “The blackness of tarred canvas may have suggested its likeness to a funeral pall; though, in the absence of any instances of tar-pall, this origin must remain conjectural.” Be that as it may, tarpaulin seems to have been tarred, and the OED gives a 1725 citation to this effect. Equating pallin(g) with paulin is more problematic. Someone whose curiosity has been piqued by awning will, naturally, try to solve the riddle of tarpaulin. After all, Captain Smith used the two words synonymously. So it comes as no surprise that Ernest Weekley also devoted some time to tarpaulin. He suggested that paulin is the same word as Middle English palyoun “canopy.” Its cognate in all the continental Scandinavian languages is paulun, a popular variant of pavilion. Low German exhibits nearly the same form. Given this reconstruction, tarpaulin is half-English and half-Scandinavian (or German, though more likely Scandinavian).

The questions remain open. With minimal enthusiasm, I would trace awning to awn and half-heartedly endorse Weekley’s etymology of tarpaulin.

Anatoly Liberman is the author of Word Origins…And How We Know Them as well as An Analytic Dictionary of English Etymology: An Introduction. His column on word origins, The Oxford Etymologist, appears here, each Wednesday. Send your etymology question to him care of blog@oup.com; he’ll do his best to avoid responding with “origin unknown.”

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Image credit: (1) Diwan-i-Khas, Red Fort, Delhi with red awnings or shamianas, in 1817. Ghulam ‘Ali Khan (fl.1817-1852). British Library. (2) Pressening 200 gram efter två säsonger Foto : tagen av (mig själv) Hans Friedman 2007-10-20 via Wikimedia Commons.

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5 Responses to “‘Awning’ and ‘tarpaulin’”
  1. Laurel Wilson says:

    I wanted to add something to the possible derivation of ‘awning’ from ‘au(l)ning’: In medieval England there was an official whose job it was to make sure that linen and canvas were sold in the correct lengths. The lengths indeed were ‘aunes’ or ‘aulnes’ and the official was the a(u)lnager. The measurement itself was in use for many different things, but since the aulnager was specific to linen and canvas, it does seem possible that there is a relationship there.

    In any case, I found this entry, like everything in your blog, fascinating.

  2. The following 1678 use of “tar pauling” may or may not be of interest. Maronides, or, Virgil travesty in Burlesque Verse… by John Phillips (London, 1678)pages 2-3.
    That done, they fall to shipping oar,
    Cast Anchor and the Galleys moore;
    The Galleys, with the Spritsail Bow,
    To lee-ward turn’d, lay all a row,
    As on the spits you see Hogs-haslets,
    Or Beads on Pater Noster bracelets,
    And now the mad tar pauling Spittles
    Are all for smoke, or else fresh vittles;
    Away in mud, up to the knees,
    They ding a shore….

  3. Paul Clapham says:

    And now people have clipped “tarpaulin” to simply “tarp” — I haven’t heard anything but the short form for years.

    I can’t imagine what future etymologists would make of the word “tarp” if they had to start from scratch.

  4. Masha Bell says:

    The second paragraph of this post illustrates why it is very difficult to be certain about the provenance of English words. Their spellings have often evolved in very erratic ways.

    The first type-setters of English books made many errors, because they spoke little or no English, but many people learned to read and write with their spellings. Before them, scribes often changed the spellings of the texts they were copying from too, as we know from Chaucer’s rebuke to his scribe Adam.

    Masha Bell
    Ex English teacher, now independent literacy researcher
    Author of ebook ‘SPELLING IT OUT: the problems and costs of English spelling’ (2012)
    ‘Rules and Exceptions of English Spelling’ (2009)
    ‘Understanding English Spelling’ (2004)
    http://www.EnglishSpellingProblems.co.uk

  5. racherin says:

    I don’t find it odd that the name for a sail would come from a standard measurement. I don’t that much about sails, but it happens often in food that the measure becomes the name. Penny candy immediately springs to mind, and I just discovered and Italian snack called ‘cinque e cinque’ after the cost of the ingredients – 5 lire for the wrap and 5 lire for the inside – there are still various snacks that go by cinque e cinque in Tuscany and Liguria, dispite the lira no longer existing. In America there used to be a category of beer called three-two that could be purchased by 16-18 year olds, called after 3.2 percent alcohol content.
    It doesn’t seem a stretch to me that there would be an awning of sail cloth-enough au(l)ns to make a certain size or type of sail, or a sail cloth of a certain width, weave, or finish-and then the measure became the name. Sheeting can mean cloth wide enough for sheets, why could a sailing term not similarly come from a standard size that we no longer know about?

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