Nova Scotia·Word for Word

August long weekend a perfect time to campaign for champagne

If you’re one of those people who packs like a weekend warrior every time you head on a camping trip, you can blame the English language.

Also, if you find tents tense, etymology is on your side

Summer is great. But four little-known dangers can seriously hamper your holiday. (Shutterstock/oneinchpunch)

If you're one of those people who packs like a weekend warrior every time you head on a camping trip, you can blame the English language. 

Those word-birthing Romans conquered half of Europe around the year zero and everywhere they went, they saw only open countryside: what they called campus.

Centuries later, English speakers borrowed that word intact to describe the open spaces at a university or other big organization.

Every spring, the Roman army left the safety of cities and towns to live and fight in the open countryside — they went on campaign.

The army slept in tents, so English eventually borrowed the word to describe any person's trip to sleep in the countryside as camping.

Roman gladiators also fought and trained in the campus, and so fighters or top soldiers came to be called campiones, which entered English as champion.

The losers could always leave the camp. Roman soldiers who did so were said to ex-campare, which English speakers mispronounce as scampering

All those words — campus, campaign, camping and champion — come from the same root word. 

Some 1,914 years after Caesar Augustus founded the Roman Empire, British soldiers queued to visit the camp prostitutes during the First World War. As they waited, they chatted about how the women slathered on the makeup to obscure any natural deficits in personal beauty — they were campy. Being British, the soldiers soon started to dress like the ladies, and they were called camp. Later, the word probably spilled over to also describe some gay men.

Too tense? Release the tenter hooks

Many people detest camping because life is two tents — sorry, too tense — and they have good reason. The word tent started out meaning anything stretched over poles (it's related to tense). Your tent is also stretched over poles, which is where it got its name. People also used tenter hooks to keep woolen cloth taut, and one day someone decided that's exactly how they felt in a suspenseful situation: they were on tenterhooks. 

English often offers a fancy French/Latin word and a plain old English word to describe the same thing. Take the word forest, which conjures up romantic images of fairies and Robin Hood. It comes from the Latin forestis silva, which translates as "outside in the trees."

Originally, the English word forest referred only to the king's hunting area. Since forestis meant outside or open, it generated many related words: a forum is outdoors, forensic means testimony made in open court, and someone from outside your community is foreign.

In plain English, the forest is just the woods, a word that has barely changed in the 6,000 years since the Proto-Indo European speakers talked about the widhu.

As you slip into the water in your canoe, spare a moment for the lost world of the Arawak. These people lived in what is today the Caribbean and they called their boats canaoua, which we still use as canoe. (They also loved a good cookout, and called it a barbakoa, which we borrowed as barbecue.)

If you prefer swifter travel, your kayak offers a chance to thank the Inuit, who invented it and called it a qayaq. English just tweaked the spelling.   

Finally, if you really want to celebrate etymology, bring a bottle of champagne camping with you. Its full name is vin de Champagne, from that same campus root, and it means wine in the countryside.

And unless you're pitching your tent, remember: bottoms up.

Word for Word is the CBC's monthly etymology column. Got an idea for a topic? Tweet it to JonSign up for Word for Word to have it delivered into your inbox.


Jon Tattrie


Jon Tattrie is a journalist and author in Nova Scotia.


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