Oboe

A little foray into music today, with a look at a woodwind instrument: the oboe.

The current version of the word, oboe, came into English in around 1724. It was adopted from the Italian, with the word taken exactly as it was in that language; oboe; and subsequently given an anglicised pronunciation. Italy is known for its music, and indeed Italian terms are used on written music, so this may seem very logical.

But in fact, the story does not end there. The Italians did not develop the word oboe by themselves. It is a rendition of the sound of the French word, an attempt to spell the French phonetically according to Italian norms. And the Middle French word is hautbois. You can see it in this charming traditional Christmas carol in the second line of the refrain:

Il est né le divin enfant,

Jouez hautbois, résonnez musettes!

Il est né le divin enfant,

Chantons tous son avènement!

The significant point about the word hautbois from the perspective of English is that it was also borrowed into English before the Italian adaptation oboe. It was rendered as hautboy, and we can see some famous examples in Shakespeare. Act 1 Scene 7 of Macbeth opens with the words:

Hautboys and torches. Enter, and pass over.

There are at least two other examples in the same play, used to create ominous effect.

Going back now to hautbois, we can easily split the word into two parts: haut and bois. The first part, haut, means ‘high’ or even ‘high-pitched’. It was the same in Old French, with the 11th century using haut, but it came from Latin altus, which meant ‘high’ or ‘tall’, as indeed alto does today in modern Italian. From Latin, we trace it back to a Proto-Indo-European root, *al-, which is thought to have meant ‘grow, nourish’. Evidence of this root can be seen in words such as adult, elder and old, to name but a few.

Now let’s examine the second part of hautbois: bois.This word meant and still means ‘wood’. It is cognate with the English word ‘bush‘, and is thought to be of Germanic origin, coming into French through Frankish. The Latin word boscus does not appear until the medieval period, and is assumed to be a Latinisation of the Germanic word.

So this means that ‘oboe‘ is actually ‘high-wood’; a reference to its musical register among other woodwind instruments.

Advertisements

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s