Alba: Part 2

ˈalapə / ˈalba

Alba: Scotland (Scottish Gaelic)

In my previous post about this word, I described how the Scottish Gaelic name for Scotland, Alba, originated in the reconstructed Proto-Indo-European albho-, meaning “white”. In Proto-Celtic, this evolved into another word something like albiyu. This word seems to have meant something like “bright place” or “high place”, and in the later Celtic languages Brittonic and Goidelic (spoken on the islands of Britain and Ireland, respectively) it produced place-names that ended up as Alba, Albion and Albany. Likewise in the Germanic languages, albho- gave rise to a “high place” word that gives us the name of the Alps mountain range.

As well as place-names, Proto-Indo-European albho- has spawned a number of words that have ended up in English, having first evolved and mutated in the Germanic and Romance languages.

But not much happened to this word when it entered the language that eventually became Greek. The Classical Greek word for “white” was leukos, which I’ll perhaps write about in another post. The only Greek descendant of albho- that ever seems to have entered English is alphos, a name the Greeks applied to some sort of white-spotted skin condition. In English, it was used rather vaguely for various skin diseases, including leprosy, and was then abandoned.

In the Germanic languages, albho- seems to have evolved in two directions. One was the “high place” meaning that spawned our word Alps, as I’ve previously described. But the other meaning was a supernatural one, involving a Proto-Germanic word that has been reconstructed as albiz or albaz. The American Heritage Dictionary of Indo-European Roots wonders if this might have originally meant something like “white ghostly apparition”—and it spawned the German word Alb, which is generally translated as “elf”. (German more commonly now uses the word Elf, borrowed from English, but Alb is still with us, embedded in the lovely German word Albtraum, “nightmare”, which literally means “elf dream”.) In other Germanic languages, the “b” sound mutated to “v” or “f”, so we have Norwegian alv, Danish alf, Old English ælf and Modern English elf, all denoting some sort of supernatural humanoid with at best ambivalent intentions towards humans. The Old Norse alfr had a similar meaning, but was adopted into English as auf, meaning “elf-child”—the word for a changeling infant left in place of a real human child that had been stolen away by fairies. Such children (it was believed) never matured mentally as they grew up—which is how the old word auf evolved into the modern word oaf.

From Old English ælf we have the personal names Alfred (from ælf-rede, “elf-counsel”) and Oliver (ælf-here, “elf army”). From Alb the Germans have the name Alberich (“elf king”), which in French became Auberi—the source of the British name Aubrey, as well as of Oberon, Shakespeare’s King of the Fairies.

The word elfin was coined by Edmund Spenser in his epic poem The Faerie Queene (1590). It originally meant “pertaining to elves”, but has now taken on the meaning “small, delicately formed” (with perhaps an added connotation of mischievousness). But J.R.R. Tolkien despised the word as being ill-formed on philological grounds, and used elven when writing about the elves of his Middle Earth. (The same motivation was behind his use of the plural dwarves, rather than the standard dwarfs.)

In Latin, albho- gave rise to the noun album “the colour white” and adjective albus, “white in colour”. The feminine of albus is alba, which (as I described last time) was once invoked as the origin of Gaelic Alba. From the Latin we have alb, the white priestly garment; albedo, an astronomical term for reflectivity; albescent, “becoming pale”; albumen, the white of an egg; and albumins, a family of proteins related to a constituent of albumen. Albite is a white mineral, and abele is an old name for the White Poplar, which was once called albellus in Latin. Albedineity and albedony are both old words meaning “whiteness”, which could do with being revived, in my opinion. Albication is the process of becoming white, albification is the process of making something white, and something albificative has the power to make something white. An albiflorous plant has white flowers.

The Romans referred to a blank writing tablet as an album. The word was later used to refer to books of blank paper, and then took on its modern meaning because of the album amicorum (“book of friends”) which became fashionable in Germany during the sixteenth century. These were blank books in which people collected the signatures, writings and drawings of their friends. The word album was thereafter repurposed to designate a book in which one collected things—autographs, photographs, stamps. And the concept of a collection under one cover eventually fed into the idea of a record album.

The Portuguese, who were among the first Europeans to encounter Black Africans with depigmented skin, referred to them as albinos, from their word albo, “white”. The word albino was thereafter adopted in English, giving rise to the noun albinism and the adjective albinistic, which refer to a genetic lack of the usual pigmentation. One may speak, if one wishes, of an “albino rat”, but describing someone as “an albino” is a potentially offensive focus on disease over person. And we can similarly consign the old word albiness, “a female albino”, to the dustbin of disuse.

The Latin verb dealbare meant “to cover with white”—that is, to whitewash. This was absorbed into Old French as the verb dauber, and then found its way into English as daub, which originally meant “to cover in plaster”—hence the existence of wattle and daub walls. But now it has lost its connotations of whiteness and smoothness, and applies to the clumsy application of a coating of any (or many) colours.

Latin alburnus, “nearly white” became auborne in Old French and then auburn in English. The -burn bit made people thing of French brun, “brown”, so its meaning in English started off as “pale brown”, but has gradually shifted towards the redder end of the brown range.

In Spanish, Latin albus became albor, meaning “white”. But by association with the way the sky grows pale as dawn approaches, albor also came to mean “dawn-light”. By adding the suffix -ada, indicating a time period, the Spanish then produced alborada, “sunrise”. In French that was adopted as aubade, and designated a love song sung in the morning. These were the days when courtly love was a thing, and singing beneath your lover’s window at an ungodly hour was also a thing. (The aubade was an opposite, of sorts, to the serenade, which was sung in the evening, god help us.) In English, aubade still has a lingering usage referring to music and poetry connected with the morning, but mainly it’s just a fine word to use to refer to the “dawn chorus”—the explosion of birdsong that greets the sunrise.

And if that isn’t a tortuous enough piece of ornithological etymology, try this one. It starts with the Portuguese word for the pelican, alcatraz, which comes from the Arabic. Some say it derives from al qadus, “the bucket”, in reference to the pelican’s throat pouch; some say it’s from al gattas, “the diver”. Given that the Portuguese word was also applied to the gannet, which notably lacks a throat pouch and just as notably dives, I lean to the latter etymology. The prison island of Alcatraz, in San Francisco Bay, gets its name from the pelicans that once nested there.

The name alcatraz also ended up attached to the frigate bird, a dark and predatory creature which both has a throat pouch and dives to attack other birds in the air. English-speaking sailors, already happily in possession of names for the pelican and gannet, but evidently short of a word for the frigate bird, adopted the Portuguese name in the form alcatras. And at some point someone seems to have looked at a bird skimming the waves behind a ship in the Southern Ocean and decided that if a large, black, slim-winged bird was called an alcatras, then a large, white, slim-winged bird should be called an alba-tras. And so the albatross reputedly got its name, as a rather recondite Latin pun.

2 thoughts on “Alba: Part 2”

  1. I always learn something in your etymological blogs. . Interesting the move from aibho through white to high. . The Irish word ARD , meaning high (as in ARD RI – high king)features in the names of many mountains as I’m sure in Scotland
    I had experience in Bolivia of the custom in which ? friends ? sing outside the door/ window at 5.45Am on one’s birthday .! I’d been warned to be decently clad at that time as all in the house were expected to appear and partake in light refreshments with the well wishers .

    1. I used to think that the town of Airdrie in Scotland must have something to do with a high king, but my Brewer’s Britain and Ireland tells me it’s from ard ruighe, “high slope”. The same reference source has an entry devoted to “ard” in placenames, showing that it occurred in both Goidelic and Brittonic—it turns up in Wales and Cornwall as well as in Ireland and Scotland.

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