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On barrels from East to West

The post two weeks ago was devoted to the origin and history of bar. In English, all words with the root bar- ~ barr- are from French. They usually have related forms in Italian, Spanish, and Portuguese, but their source in the Romance-speaking world remains a matter of unending debate. Some scholars trace bar– to Celtic, others to Germanic, and still others make do with the unassailable but uninspiring formula: “Of unknown origin.” A troubling aspect of the history of the bar– words is that, although many such words exist, it is sometimes hard to decide how and whether they are related. Here then comes the question of the day: “Does barrel have anything to do with bar?”

Obviously, attempts at answers should be sought in the works of Romance scholars, but English dictionaries, especially the most authoritative ones, borrow their conclusions from just such works, so that turning to them for initial inspiration makes sense. The Oxford Dictionary of English Etymology (ODEE) states that Old French baril was “plausibly taken by Diez to be a deriv[ative] of BAR.” The OED also thought the connection between bar and barrel plausible. But the ODEE appeared more than eighty years after the publication of the first volume of the OED, and what was plausible in Murrays’ days became implausible or at least disputable in the middle of the twentieth century.

Before going further, something should perhaps be said about Friedrich Diez (1794-1876). He was the founder of Romance historical linguistics, the author of a comparative grammar and of an etymological dictionary of the Romance languages. The often-repeated verdict that Diez did for Romance what Jacob Grimm did for Germanic is justified. His dictionary appeared in 1853 and underwent several revisions. Today, the posthumous fifth edition (1887) by two outstanding experts in the field is usually consulted. For James Murray (1837-1915), the OED’s first and greatest editor, Diez was a near contemporary. For us he is one of the revered founders of modern philology, but it would be strange if some of his conclusions had not been put into question and improved between 1853 or even 1887 and today. The phrase “plausibly taken by Diez to be a derivative of bar” requires a few comments.

Friedrich Christian Diez, the founder of Romance comparative philology
Friedrich Christian Diez, the founder of Romance comparative philology

To begin with, why should (or can) barrel be akin to bar? Skeat, who also followed Diez, explains: “Perhaps from Late Latin barra, a bar, pale; from the staves of it.” Whatever the origin of barrel, –el is a diminutive suffix, which means that initially the object in question was a small cask or vat. Reference to its small size is amazingly constant. Here are a few forms attested only in French dialects: barrot, barrique, barisel, and (with two more exotic suffixes) barrihet, and barrilhoun. The center of such words’ dissemination seems to have been South-West France. In light of this fact, the rather popular idea that barrot and the rest are of Germanic origin looks improbable.

Words come with things, and the names of barrels must have radiated abroad with the trade in wine, even though not only wine is kept in barrels. Such was the opinion of Paul Barbier (1873-1947), a student of the French vocabulary and the author of a great (unpublished) French dictionary. He spent thirty-five years teaching at the University of Leeds, and I mentioned him in my post of 1 March 2014 (“Gray Matter, Part 3”). I have read about everything he published, as my Bibliography of English Etymology shows, and have great respect for his scholarship. In the post a year ago I wrote that I know almost nothing about him, and that’s how matters still stand. He is not featured in Wikipedia, and his obituary, signed by J. O. (that must be John Orr; not only Stephen Goranson can guess the names behind the initials!), is less than a page long. No more information has turned up on the Internet.

In 1921 Josef Brüch published a long article on the roots barr– and bar-, and in 1955 Johannes Hubschmied brought out a book on the names of hose pipes and vessels in Romance. We can see that between Diez and 1966 barrel and its congeners (real or alleged) received a good deal of attention. Brüch, following Gottfried Baist (both were outstanding Romance scholars) cited Portuguese barrica “vessel” and barriga “belly,” two rather obviously related words, and traced barrel to late Latin barca “boat,” known to English speakers from barque ~ bark “a sailing vessel” and barge. The path from “boat” to “belly” and “vessel” is easy to visualize, and instances of such metaphorical usage are known. German researchers did not remember the English word potbelly; yet its existence bears out the idea that vessels and a fat belly may go together in our linguistic consciousness. A boat with its rounded sides also resembles a pot. With the triad “bark” ~ “belly” ~ “barrel” we could not be farther away from Diez. Not improbably, the most ancient form of the word we are investigating referred to both a hose and a barrel (or only to a hose); however, this is unclear. If the earliest meaning of barrel differed from the one we know, staves will fade out of the picture for all times. But this reasoning presents some problems I would prefer to avoid here, in order not to be lost in technicalities. More interesting is the existence of two derivations of barrel that look rather fanciful, even though they were proposed by excellent specialists.

A barrel in the making
A barrel in the making

According to one, barrel was inherited by Romance from the ancient language of the Iberian Peninsula. This substrate word meant “clay,” and barrels supposedly were vessels for keeping clay and similar products (not wine!). Such was the opinion of the Italian etymologist Giovanni Alessio. Long before Alessio, Paul Haupt, the author of several articles on the ties between the languages of Europe and the East, observed that the Sumerian and Assyrian word bur meant “urn”. Allegedly, it crossed the path of a similar-sounding Hebrew word for “wine trough; coop.” Haupt believed that barrel is a borrowing from Sumerian. If he was right, barrel belongs with so-called migratory words. The names of the objects of material culture (weapons, vessels, implements, foodstuffs, drinks, and so forth) traveling from land to land are rather many. For example, the Gothic noun mekis means “sword” (the Gothic Bible was translated from Greek in the fourth century; the word occurs in the passage in which Simon Peter cuts off Malchus’s ear). The best swords were forged in and imported from the Caucasus. Therefore, it does not come as a surprise that we find the slightly varying forms of mekis elsewhere in Germanic and in Slavic, among others. If barrels were mainly associated with wine, the word barrel could have made its way from Sumerian to Romance. Given this scenario, all our talk about staves, bellies, and boats is like so many arrows shot into the air. Longfellow’s arrow, as we remember, fell to earth we know not where.

Etymology does not always provide answers to the questions we ask, but it certainly broadens our scope of vision and makes us think. In April, I finished my post on bar with the reminder that the verb embarrass is allied to it and received a friendly letter praising me for that line. In gratitude for that letter, I’ll add that there is another word containing the root bar-, namely embargo. In English it is from Spanish. Perhaps despite the forbidding sense of embargo I’ll receive one more letter of thanks.

Image credits: (1) Friedrich Christian Diez. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons. (2) The Barrel Maker (Japan). OSU Special Collections & Archives. No known copyright restrictions via Wikimedia Commons.

Recent Comments

  1. Stephen Goranson

    In addition to what is in Leeds Uni. library special collections (e.g., his working library), there are some mentions of Prof. Paul Barbier in newspapers (Yorkshire Post and Leeds Intelligencer and others) via British Newspaper Archive, though only snippets are readable without a subscription or interlibrary loan.
    For a 1947 obituary and a 1978 remembrance:

  2. John Cowan

    Jevgēnijs Kaktiņš wonders why the name of þ Þ is thorn. The thorn in question is the common hawthorn tree, Crataegus monogyna. Along with oak and ash, it is one of the sacred trees of the British Isles. There is a 9C poem naming the Anglo-Saxon runes, and many of the names have strong religious significance. Indeed, ash (spelled æsc) and oak (spelled āc) are the rune names corresponding to the Old English letters æ and ā. (Semantically similar examples are tyr ‘the god Tyr’, ōs ‘god’ (cognate to Old Norse Æsir ‘the gods’), and ing ‘the hero Ing’.) In Scandinavia, where the use of runes persisted longer than in England, these names were lost in favor of simpler Latin-alphabet-style names.

  3. Jevgēnijs Kaktiņš

    This time I’m perplexed by an article exploring origin of an Italian family and place name Barillà in Calabria. It is proposed that Mediterranean Italian barile pronounced as varile travelled to Greek as βαρέλι forming the form βαρελάς for a cooper and then as ‘cavallo di ritorno’ returned to Medieval Italian. Not impossible taking into acoount Greek settlements in Calabria, though the word is not found in contemporary dictionary so Arabic etymology is being proposed. What do you think about this? http://www.inaspromonte.it/barillah%ce%b2%ce%b1%cf%81%ce%b5%ce%bb%ce%ac%cf%83barilla-seconda-parte/

  4. […] finish the bar(r)- series, I deviated from my usual practice and chose a word about which there is at present relatively […]

  5. […] a small plate of leftovers in the hope of providing a dessert after the stodgy essays on bars, barrels, barracks, and barricades, to say nothing about cry […]

  6. […] receptacles, and here the story resembles the one familiar in connection with the origin of barrel (the subject of a relatively recent post). Etymologists wandered around Engl. butt “a large cask,” Old Engl. buterie “leather bottle” […]

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