Ask Etymology Ethelwulf:

A gentle reader asks, Where the heck does the word "umbrella" come from?

This story takes us on a fascinating etymological odyssey, which only became clear to me when, while reading the Alliterative Morte Arthure today in my medieval reading group at Georgetown Law, I came across the verbs umbeclap and umbelap. (You can find them by searching in Part 2 of the e-text here.) After Sir Berille is killed, Sir Cador "umbeclappes" the corpse (line 1779), meaning "embraces." And, later, in a battle, the King of Libya "umbelappes" some of King Arthur's army (line 1819), meaning "surrounds."

The etymology isn't that difficult: "Umbeclap" begins with the prefix "umbe-" — this is a combination of the prefix "um-" meaning "around" (think of the modern German preposition "um"), and the general-purpose verbal prefix "be-", which is used for a variety of purposes, like intensifying the verb, making it figurative, making an intransitive verb transitive, etc. (consider "become," "befall," "beclown"). And the second component, "clap," is the same as the verb we use to clap our hands, in its less common meaning of "to pat fondly." As for "umbelap," it's the same "umbe-" prefix with "lap," meaning to fold or envelop — this was a term originally used with clothing, so that parts of the garment can "overlap," but acquired a metaphorical sense of surrounding (hence the concept of running "laps" around a racecourse). (All this is in the OED.)

So clearly "umbrella" comes from the Middle English combination of "umb-" with "rella."

To get at the derivation of "rella," we have to look to Latin. In ancient Rome, when you went out in the rain, you would "repluviare" yourself. This is derived from "pluvia" (meaning "rain") and the prefix "re-" (denoting reversal or opposition, like "revocation" or "rebellion" — or "reversal"!). Examples of repluviatio included wearing a hood, or (for the upper classes) having slaves stretch fabric over your head on sticks. (And hence the debates among Catullus scholars over what Catullus actually meant when he wrote "Repluvio te, Lesbia mea" — is he protecting her from rain, or is he using her as his symbolic umbrella?)

When Roman armies invaded Spain in 218 BC — and as Romans colonized the new province — they brought their repluviae with them. Virgil memorably described precipitation in the Iberian lowlands in his collection of love odes De mea pulchra domina: "Pluvia in Hispania praecipue in plano manet." Moreover, when it wasn't raining, the sun shone down pretty hard, so the repluviae doubled as useful parasols.

The Iberians adopted and adapted the repluviae, and in the process the name became Hispanified. As we know, "pl-" words tend to become "ll-" words in Spanish, so "pluvia" becomes "lluvia," "planctus" (the past participle of "plangere," meaning "to lament") becomes "llanto," "planus" (meaning "a plain") becomes "llano," and so on. (You can see the same thing happening with "cl-" in the movement from "clamare" to "llamar.") So, in the outer provinces, repluviare became relluviar.

Of course, not everyone could afford slaves to stretch the fabric over their heads, so in the later Empire, it became more common to actually carry a stick oneself, which would hold the outstretched fabric in place. The main innovation in repluviation technology happened in the fourth century, when a hermit, possibly in the Tyrolean Alps, figured out that you could protect yourself from the elements better if the repluviae (or, as they were now called, relluvias or relluas) stretched their fabric out around your head, not just in a flat surface over your head. With slight modifications having to do with the stability of the curved spokes, this is the same technology we use today.

This innovation quickly caught on. South of the Alps, the technology was called circumrepluviatio, though this bit of technojargon, to put it mildly, didn't pass the test of time. North of the Alps, where weather conditions were quite a bit harsher, the Germanic tribesmen had already been enthusiastic users of "Relluen," and by addition of the transitive prefix "be-", we get the verb "sich berelluen," roughly meaning "to repluviate oneself." As they adopted the "around-the-head" technology, "sich berelluen," through the addition of the "around" suffix "um-", became "sich umberelluen."

Archaeologists still don't know whether the "umberelluen" came over to England in the fifth century, at the time of the Anglo-Saxon invasions, or with the Normans at the time of the Conquest in 1066. (Bede did report that Cædmon wrote a popular hymn called "Dryghten umbrælleþ me," but some commentators think this was scribal error.) But one thing's for sure — better umbrellas than circumrepluviators!

UPDATE: Thanks to a correspondent who reminds me that the "umbe-" prefix is alive and well in other modern English words. To fill someone all around with rage was, in Middle English, to "umberage" him (cf. Chaucer's "This churl me umberageth" from The Haberdasher's Tale), and hence the expression "to take umbrage" at something. However, attempts to link "umbrage" or "umbrella" with the Italian region of Umbria are just pop etymology. And don't even get me started on the "umbra" old wives' tale!

Adam K:
According to my four years of Latin, it comes from "umbra," for "shadow."
3.2.2007 8:50pm
Sasha Volokh (mail) (www):
Adam K: Shhhh!
3.2.2007 8:51pm
I think Adam's right. "Little Shadow" or somesuchlike.
3.2.2007 9:03pm
Sasha Volokh (mail) (www):
JB: Shhhh!
3.2.2007 9:04pm
The Original TS (mail):
reading the Alliterative Morte Arthure today in my medieval reading group at Georgetown Law

Geez. Medieval reading group? Whatever happened to studying torts and civ pro?

BTW, I think Adam's right, too. Was this, by chance, an etymological April Fool's joke that accidentally got published early?
3.2.2007 9:09pm
Sasha Volokh (mail) (www):
The Original TS: Torts and civ pro are so Christopher Columbus Langdell.

Also: shhhh!
3.2.2007 9:15pm
liberty (mail) (www):
What is the origin of "shhhh"?
3.2.2007 9:17pm
Sasha Volokh (mail) (www):
Ancient Hebrew. The Hebrews are fond of using acronyms as words. There's the whole Kabbalistic (number values for letters, numerology, etc.) aspect of Judaism. Some Jewish family names are acronyms -- Schor is "Shochet" (ritual slaughterer) + "Rav" (rabbi). More recently -- we're talking Middle Ages here -- Maimonides, properly called Rabbi Moishe ben Maimon, is abbreviated to Rambam, and the same goes for the Ramban (Nahmanides, or Rabbi Moishe ben Nahman), Rashi (Rabbi Shlomo Yitchaki) and many other medieval Jewish legal commentators. There's a ton of examples of this.

So on to "Shhhh" -- this is the combination of four letters, shin, het, het, het. It's short for "Shalom Haman, Hagar, Herod" -- meaning, obviously enough, "Hello Haman, Hagar, and Herod"!

Haman is the villain of the Purim story (it's why people go at it with their noisemakers whenever his name is spoken during the recitation of the Purim story). Hagar is Sarah's handmaid in the book of Genesis -- the one who gave birth to Ishmael and is also nicknamed "the Horrible." And Herod is the evil king of late Judean history.

So when someone is talking when they shouldn't, the custom is to greet evil people of Jewish history, probably on the theory that "If you don't shut up, these bad people will come and kill you or take you away."
3.2.2007 9:26pm
bornyesterday (mail) (www):
I think you need to get out more, Sasha.
3.2.2007 9:49pm
Jay Goodman Tamboli (mail) (www):
The Medieval Reading group is a lot of fun. Except when the leader steals your ideas for blog posts.
3.2.2007 9:56pm
Jay Goodman Tamboli (mail) (www):
OK, maybe Sasha did notice "umbelappes" himself, and he did know what the etymology was. But I pointed out it was a cool word.
3.2.2007 9:57pm
Sasha Volokh (mail) (www):
Yes, Jay gets the credit for pointing out "umbelappes." Because if he hadn't done that, I wouldn't have explained it and drawn the parallel with "umbeclappes," and then I wouldn't have told Hanah about it, and Hanah wouldn't have asked me about umbrellas.
3.2.2007 9:58pm
liberty (mail) (www):
Yes, I think Sasha is correct.
3.2.2007 10:29pm
Sasha Volokh (mail) (www):
Am I drinking out of a swimming pool with a straw, or am I eating a lollipop the wrong way?
3.2.2007 10:34pm
liberty (mail) (www):
At least your words aren't your toothpick, as in the case of your brother.
3.2.2007 10:43pm


You sure that doesn't have something to do with giving someone a dose of the clap?
3.3.2007 12:11am
AppSocRes (mail):
I wasn't sure what yiou were up to until I got to "Pluvia in Hispania praecipue in plano manet." and started humming "Jove, cogito haec hoc intellegere" [Forgive the Latin: It's over 40 years since I last was forced to read Caesar and Cicero.] Then I realized that umbrella is, of course, the Latin diminutive of shadow or cloud, as in the penumbras that so fascinate bad Supreme Court justices
3.3.2007 12:20am
Syd (mail):
In how many states is it illegal to umbeclappe a corpse? I bet you could get arrested in Ohio.
3.3.2007 12:48am
Ron Hardin (mail) (www):
I'd like to hear about agnostic, helicopter, amnesia and pregnant.
3.3.2007 6:05am
Or maybe it was invented by a Mr. Umber?
3.3.2007 6:31am
Taeyoung (mail):
Virgil memorably described precipitation in the Iberian lowlands in his collection of love odes De mea pulchra domina: "Pluvia in Hispania praecipue in plano manet."
I think that's the most fun thing I'm going to learn all today. Haha!
3.3.2007 8:26am
Taeyoung (mail):
Incidentally -- and in all seriousness -- how much of the explanation above is true?
3.3.2007 8:29am
Taeyoung (mail):
Should have put this in the above -- but I mean some of it is obviously made up, but once I leave the bits I actually know, I have no idea which parts are.
3.3.2007 8:31am
Sasha Volokh (mail) (www):
Taeyoung: All of it up to the parenthetical about the OED, and the two sentences about how "ll-" words are formed in Spanish.
3.3.2007 9:24am
Sasha Volokh (mail) (www):
Ron Hardin: Why those four words?
3.3.2007 9:34am
Ron Hardin (mail) (www):
They're actually interesting, in that English syllabification obscures quite reasonable roots.

helico-pter (wing) ; pre-gnant (before birth) ; a-mnesia (without memory) ; a - gnostic (without knowledge)

Actually it was mild criticism of the schtik, which was pretty tone-deaf about roots. I don't mind wrong, but it's got to be plausible.
3.3.2007 9:39am
Sasha Volokh (mail) (www):
Ron Hardin: By the way, those words are easy.

"Agnostic" is from "agnus" (lamb) + "stick" -- lamb on a stick; this is a derogatory term for unbelievers, dating back to ancient times in the Middle East, similar to the modern derogatory term "cafeteria Catholicism".

No, just joking! That was obviously made up. Actually, the "agnus" part is real, but the second part is from "Stygis," the river Styx of the underworld. Originally the label "agnostic" wasn't applied against members of all religions, but just those who thought that Christianity, with its specific miracles like the Resurrection, was unprovable. Early Christians were horrified by this, not because it was unbelief -- that was of course the most common view in ancient times -- but because it was the refusal to take a stand on an important spiritual question. Remember how, in Dante's Inferno, there's a special place just outside of Hell reserved for the cowards, rejected by Heaven and not accepted by Hell, who didn't take a stand in life? That has direct roots in the beliefs of the early Christians, who taught that those who neither believed nor disbelieved would be stranded at the Styx (i.e., not allowed to cross the Styx into the underworld) by reason of the lamb of God ("agno-Stygian" or "agnostycus").

"Helicopter" is from "helio-" (sun) + "Copt" -- a reference to early Christian writings of the Patristic period in which the souls of the dead were depicted traveling up to the sun in machines powered by angel wings ("heliocoptic transfiguration").

"Amnesia" comes from the Latin "amnis" (plural "amnes"), meaning "river." Recall that forgetfulness, to the ancients, was a river named Lethe; so to forget was to be "taken by the river" ("fluitare secundum amni Lethe"), and "amnesia" was just the noun form of that.

"Pregnant" is from "precor" (the Latin verb "to entreat, pray for, wish for" hence the Italian expression "prego!") + "nant" (the present participle of the Latin verb "no, nare," meaning "to swim"). This isn't too hard to understand -- any expectant parents wish that their child will be born, and the traditional metaphor for birth was swimming (Ausschwimmung in the archaic Germanic sources).
3.3.2007 10:02am
Sasha Volokh (mail) (www):
Ron Hardin: Um, tone deaf, or ironically insouciant?
3.3.2007 11:17am
Ron Hardin (mail) (www):
To get at the derivation of "rella," is tone deaf, for example.
3.3.2007 12:41pm
Sasha Volokh (mail) (www):
"Repluviare" seemed totally obvious to me once I had correctly identified what was a prefix and what was a root. I'm sure, on further reflection, you'll agree.
3.3.2007 12:53pm
"Pluvia in Hispania praecipue in plano manet."

3.3.2007 4:26pm
Richard Blaine (mail):
Now explain "Bumbershoot".
3.3.2007 6:41pm
Andrew Hamilton (mail):
Ombra mai fu
3.3.2007 10:53pm
Andrew Hamilton (mail):
Et ne plus umbra
3.3.2007 11:03pm
Sasha Volokh (mail) (www):
Andrew Hamilton: What is "Et ne plus umbra" from?
3.3.2007 11:07pm
Sasha Volokh (mail) (www):
Courtesy of C.L. Edson:

Ah, distinctly I remember, every ember that December

Turned from amber to burnt umber. (I was burning limber lumber

in my chamber that December and it left an amber ember.)
3.3.2007 11:11pm
Gary McGath (www):
My Merriam Webster Collegiate sides with the old wives.
3.4.2007 7:45am
Syd (mail):
Richard Blaine (mail):
Now explain "Bumbershoot".

Bumbershoot (bum+bear+shoot)comes from the ancient term for a blind used in hunting. When you consider the likely result of shooting a bear in the behind, you'll appreciate the need to have some place to hide.
3.4.2007 12:01pm
Dick Schweitzer (mail):
Chute = falls? Parachute, for falling, dropping

Bumber, probably dialectic for storm
3.4.2007 5:25pm
Emmett (mail) (www):
Sasha has inspired me: let's bring back umbeclap and umbelap!
3.4.2007 8:29pm
Sasha Volokh (mail) (www):
Emmett: Thanks for the plug. But note -- just to be super-accurate -- that I'm not arguing that "the word reaches us from a blend of the Latin repluviare . . . and the Middle English words umbeclap and umbelap"; I'm only using "umbeclap" and "umbelap" (which were real words) as illustrations of the prefix "umbe-".
3.4.2007 9:36pm
Emmett (mail) (www):
Oops, I misspoke. Thanks for the correction!
3.5.2007 12:36am