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!