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the Louvre

The Louvre and its environs

As promised, this is my third (and for the time being, final) post inspired by the questions I have recently received. The answers would have been too long for my traditional “monthly gleanings.”

What is the origin of the name Louvre? Dictionaries and websites say unanimously that the sought-for etymology is unknown or uncertain. Perhaps so, but we will see. First, a short note on the famous place may be of some use. Louvre is the name of a royal castle in Paris from, if not even before, the thirteenth century. It follows that the name is medieval (Old French). All the rest is intelligent guessing. John Minsheu, the author of the first “thick” etymological dictionary of English (1617), derived Louvre from Old French l’ouvert “the open space.” His conjecture, which survived him by several centuries, has nothing to recommend it. Initial l does go back to the definite article in quite a few French words (compare, for example, Latin hedera “ivy” and French lierre, from l’ierre, ultimately from (h)edera), but it would be impossible to account for the loss of final t in Old French, and the idea of calling a castle “an open space” would be hard to justify.

The names of some great buildings owe their origin to chance or a whim. Prado, as the great Spanish museum (Museo del Prado) is called, means “meadow.” La Scala (in Milan) is of course “staircase” (“scale,” as it were), and the Hermitage (a splendid building in St. Petersburg) was never meant to be a hermit’s cell. We can therefore expect that the name Louvre also has humble antecedents.

Old French furnishes only one clue to the etymology of Louvre, namely, lover “skylight,” and from it English has louver “the dome on a roof” and (a related architectural term) “a series of sloping boards to admit air and exclude rain.” The first sense has been known in English since the fourteenth century (thus, rather close to the time of the first attestation of the French word); the second is about two centuries later. The origin of the Old French noun and its English descendant has been discussed in detail and with a strong admixture of emotions (great reputations were at stake). More than a hundred years ago, some of the best specialists offered their conflicting hypotheses. Their greatest handicap was the existence of several similar-sounding words meaning approximately the same as louver. The words refer to roofs and openings in the roof. Yet one of them should probably be excluded from consideration.

These are the closest relatives of the louver. (Images by L: Vladimir Kudinov, R: ilya gorborukov.)

An active participant in the discussion was A. L. Mayhew (among his opponents we find Frank Chance and Ernest Weekley). Only Weekley’s name is still familiar to rather many, but the obscurity of the other two has nothing to do with their achievements. Nowadays, the history of English (or any other language for that matter) is rarely taught at our colleges. Naturally, those who wrote it are forgotten. The word made much of by Mayhew is Icelandic hlóð “chimney” (pronounced: hlowth, with voiced th). It did not occur in the old language, and from a historical point of view must refer to a stack of bricks, because Old English hlōð meant “troop; booty” (thus, “a pile,” something loaded, laden). The first edition of the OED mentioned Mayhew’s hypothesis but (wisely) did not commit itself. From today’s vantage point, his suggestion has little to recommend it. Conversely, Old Icelandic ljóri “a hole in the roof” seems to be close to lover, but its origin is not quite clear either. A medley of l-words and roots has been cited in connections with louver: English loft (and then of course German Luft “air,” understood as “the roof of the world”), German Laube “arbor,” English lodge, and English lobby. The suspicious Medieval Latin noun lodarium figured prominently in the research. Those words tended to travel between Germanic and Romance, changing their middle consonants along the way, but all vaguely referring to some upper structure (roof, hole in the roof, chimney, and the like) or light and lanterns on the roof. Conversely, German Laube “arbor,” English leaf, and Dutch luifel, the latter corresponding to English lobby and lodge, suggest that the structure had a roof covered with some foliage. Overchoice often kills etymology.

Is this the proto-louver? (Image by Philipp Pilz.)

Even lever has been brought into play: “A lever, when in use, forms with the plane surface against which it is pressed an angle very much resembling the angle formed by an open skylight” (Frank Chance). The lob– forms have more than once been associated with lup-, the root of Latin lupus “wolf.” What can be in common between wolves and skylights? The same Frank Chance, one of my favorite etymologists of James A. H Murray and Walter W. Skeat’s era, wrote in 1894: “…happening one day at Fontainebleau to look out of a window on to a roof with an open skylight, the connexion (sic) flashed across my mind in a second; for the angle made by the open skylight with the roof at once reminded me of the open mouth of a long-mouthed animal, such as a wolf, while the comparative darkness of the inner extremity completed the resemblance to a wolf’s open mouth with the gloom of his throat beyond it.” And F. Chance cited a few examples of the words meaning “wolf’s mouth” and “lantern”! Both suggestions (louver/lever and louver/lupus), coming from an eminent scholar, sound bizarre, to say the least, but a look at the history of our vocabulary across the globe shows that the most unpredictable associations may provide impulses to word-coiners. Fiddlers on the roof, lanterns on the roof… As early as 1845, John Parker, in his ever-popular A Concise Glossary of Architectural Terms, suggested that the Paris Louvre owes its name to a lantern of this kind but offered no evidence in confirmation of his hypothesis.

By this time, it must have become clear that a fully convincing etymology of English louver does not exist, though, whatever the word’s root, it probably referred to light, some opening admitting light, or a leafy covering. Lodge and lobby are related to it. Other similar words (such as those recorded in the Scandinavian languages) may also belong here. Louver reached Middle English from Old French, but it appears to be of Germanic origin. Words that sprang (or do you prefer sprung?) up in Germanic, migrated to France, and returned to the continent or to England are many.

Even though no dictionary gives the etymology of the French name, I believe the main thing can be said with some confidence: Louvre and English louver are, from a historical point of view, the same word. The place was hardly named because it had a lantern on its roof or resembled a wolf’s open mouth. The presence of leaves remains a riddle. I must only take issue with Skeat’s final statement: “Probably an opening over a fireplace; from Icel. hlōð, n. pl. a hearth.” The 1966 Oxford Dictionary of English Etymology does not mention Mayhew’s hypothesis. Be that as it may, the old discussion (1882-1894) of the English word, its French cognate, and its dubious Medieval Latin etymon, a discussion conducted in two excellent periodicals, Notes and Queries and The Academy, reads like a thriller. The references can be found in my Bibliography of English Etymology, but I also have copies of a few publications not mentioned in it (if someone happens to be interested). To conclude: Louvre, so famously French, is, most probably, a name of Germanic origin, with the reference being to the building’s roof.

Recent Comments

  1. Constantinos Ragazas


    “John Minsheu, … , derived Louvre from Old French l’ouvert “the open space.”

    John Minsheu may have been right!

    Often, as you have said…

    [“Prado, as the great Spanish museum (Museo del Prado) is called, means “meadow.” La Scala (in Milan) is of course “staircase” (“scale,” as it were), and the Hermitage (a splendid building in St. Petersburg) was never meant to be a hermit’s cell”]

    … a great building/palace gets its name from the name of the location where its build. The place where Louvre is located may have been a great “open space” where people may have been gathering and refering to it as “open space”. And while the Louvre was being build may have continued refering to the place as “open space”. And the name thus stuck!

    As for dropping the last letter, that is totally modern “French”!

  2. Fred de Vries

    Regarding the Louvre.

    Dutch ‘ loo’ is an ‘ open space in a wood’. We even have a palace that is called ‘Het Loo’ (see here: https://www.paleishetloo.nl).

    That Dutch word is reputedly derived from Latin ‘lucus’ (‘wood’, ‘holy place’ or ‘grove sacred to a deity’.

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