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How the instruments got their names

The cello's full name means 'The little big viol'
The cello's full name means 'The little big viol'

Why is the tenor oboe called an “English horn”? Are violinists are really playing “little violas”? What links the bassoon and Benito Mussolini? And are viols really vile? The names of the major classical instruments are so familiar that we usually take them for granted, but digging into their origins reveals an intriguing hotchpotch of multicultural influences, from ancient Greece and Rome via medieval Europe through to the present day. Some names reveal surprisingly simple origins; others make no sense whatsoever but offer entertaining glimpses into language’s ability to mistranslate, mislead and sometimes downright mangle the original meaning of things.


Origins obscure. The name might be derived from the Latin flare (“to blow, inflate”), although serious word scholars have largely rubbished this claim. All we really know is that it’s got nothing to do with “lute”.


From the Italian piccolo flauto, meaning “small flute”. Which seems to pretty much sum it up. Although there’s another school of thought which claims it’s related (we don’t quite understand how) to the Latin verb piccare, meaning “to pierce”, which also makes sense if you’ve ever been sat anywhere near a piccolo playing a top C.


Still known in French as the hautbois (haut + bois – literally “high wood”), which seems pretty self-explanatory. The Italians subsequently transliterated the French hautbois (which sounds something like “oh-bwa” to non-French ears) into oboè, from whence it transformed into the English “oboe”.

English Horn (Cor Anglais)

A good example of something being not so much lost in translation as completely destroyed, given that the cor anglais isn’t a horn and has nothing whatsoever to do with England. Early versions of the instrument were known in German as the “engellisches Horn” – literally “angelic horn” – due to its alleged resemblance to the instruments played by angels in medieval paintings. Except that engellisches also means “English” in Middle High German, which then got mistranslated into the French as “cor anglais”, and then into its Anglo equivalent, “English horn”.


From the Italian bassone (basso + the suffix -one, literally “big bass”). More interesting is the instrument’s other Italian name, fagotto, meaning something like a “bundle of sticks”, which may (or may not) be related to words ranging from the old English “faggot” (a bunch of firewood – sorry bassoonists) and the Italian “fascist”, derived from the Latin word fasces, the name of an Ancient Roman emblem comprising sticks-plus-axe which was carried by judges to indicate their power to grant life, death or other unspecified forms of punishment over all who came into their presence. Just remember that the next time you try to mess with a bassoonist.


First recorded in 1710, the name “clarinet” derives from the Latin word clarus meaning “clear”, which also gave us the word “clarion”, used in the Middle Ages in England to describe a type of early trumpet. And just to confuse matters the clarinet was also widely known as the “clarionet” up until the early 20th century, making it sound like a “little trumpet”, which it’s not.


This one makes much more sense. Invented by instrument-maker Adolphe Sax in the 19th century, the word saxophone simply combines the name “Sax” and the Greek suffix -phone, meaning something which makes a sound, as in your latest Samsung Galaxy.


Variants of this name can be found in northern European languages back to at least the 14th century, although exactly where it comes from isn’t clear. One theory is that it’s related to medieval words for the drum (known as trommel in Old German) – although we don’t really understand why medieval folk might confuse the two.


From the Italian tromba (“trumpet”) plus the suffix -one (“big”). Which kind of makes sense, even if it isn’t actually a trumpet.


From the Latin tubus (meaning “tube” or “pipe"). Nothing to do with potatoes .

Viola, Violin, Viol

From the latin verb vitulari, meaning “to exult” or “to be joyful” (vitulari may also be the root of the violin’s other name, the fiddle – say “vitul” fast and you’ll see what we mean). This morphed over time into “viol”, to describe the Renaissance consort instrument beloved of Byrd and Purcell, and thence into “viola”, to describe the modern viola, and “violino” (“little viola”) to describe its smaller relation, also known as the modern violin.


The ancestor of the modern double bass was known as the violone (“viol” plus the Italian suffix -one meaning “big”). A smaller version of the instrument was called the violoncello (“little violone” – “cello” being an Italian suffix meaning “little”). So the instrument’s full name “violoncello” actually means “little big viol”. Over time the first part of the name was gradually dropped, so that the second largest modern string instrument is now called “little” – which seems like a long and complicated way of coming up with one of music’s daftest names.

Double Bass

It’s a bass instrument which traditionally doubled the bottom line of whatever piece it was playing. Simple as.


From the Latin tympanum (“drum”) – which also happens to be the source of the modern English medical term “tympanum”, referring to the thing inside your head commonly known as the ear drum.

Guitar, lute

The name “guitar” has an illustrious history, deriving from the ancient Greek kithara (a plucked instrument said to have been created by the god Hermes) which also gave us the Indian name for a plucked instrument, “sitar”. Relatives of the guitar include the Arabian oud (an instrument still hugely popular across the Middle East to this day), whose name is probably the source of the European “lute”, to which the oud bears a notable resemblance.


Back in 1710 when instrument maker Bartolomeo Cristofori produced an early piano prototype he called it a gravicembalo col piano e forte ("harpsichord with soft and loud") to distinguish it from earlier keyboard instruments like the harpsichord, clavichord and spinet, none of which could play different dynamics. Cristofori’s clunky name was subsequently abbreviated to either “pianoforte” or “fortepiano”. These two names basically referred to the same instrument to begin with, although over time the modern instrument became known simply as the piano, while “fortepiano” is now used to refer to period instruments, meaning that the softly spoken 18th-century instrument played by Mozart now has a much noisier name than the sonorous modern grand.

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