The Free Dictionary Blog > The oboe-the-top origins of musical instrument names
The oboe-the-top origins of musical instrument names
The names of many musical instruments sound so elegant and natural that you’ve probably never considered that some have pretty peculiar etymologies hiding behind the music. Here are 12 notable ones.
Some instruments are named after living things. Like birds that sing beautiful songs, you ask? Not quite.
The bugle is a brass instrument commonly used in the military. The name “bugle” comes from a diminutive form of the Latin word bōs, which means “ox.” Why? Because the instrument was originally made from ox horns.
The ukulele, a small guitar with four strings, likely gets its name from the Hawaiian term 'uku lele, meaning “jumping flea.” (In Hawaiian, 'uku means “flea,” while lele means “jumping.”) This phrase is thought to describe how a musician’s fingers move while playing the instrument.
The name of the ocarina, a small wind instrument somewhat shaped like a sweet potato, is a diminutive form of the Italian word oca, meaning “goose.” If you’re wondering what this instrument has in common with a little goose, it's the shape of the mouthpiece, which is thought to resemble a goose’s beak.
Some instruments not named for jumping fleas or goose beaks were instead named for people.
The Sax Man
In some cases, the name of the inventor lives on through the name of the instrument. The
saxophone, for instance, is named for Adolphe Sax, the Belgian instrument maker who created it.
The Untouchable Theremin
The theremin, an electronic instrument that is played without the musician actually touching it, is named for its inventor, Russian engineer Leon Theremin.
The March King
The sousaphone, a type of tuba that wraps around the musician’s upper body, is named for famed bandmaster and composer John Philip Sousa, known as “The March King.” The sousaphone is commonly used in marching bands, a fitting tribute to its namesake.
Some instruments are named for a material commonly used in musical manufacturing—wood. But they’re probably not the ones you’d expect, like the violin or the guitar.
The xylophone is an instrument consisting of wooden bars that are struck with small mallets. Its name is Greek in origin: xylo- comes from the Greek word xulon, meaning “wood,” and phōnē means “sound.” Although this instrument has been around for a long time, even appearing in Renaissance portrayals of the Dance of Death, the first known use of the word “xylophone” wasn’t until the 19th century.
The “oboe,” a woodwind instrument, gets its name from the French—sort of. The word “oboe” is Italian and comes from an attempt at phonetically pronouncing the French phrase haut bois, meaning “high wood” (in reference to the instrument’s pitch). In fact, the oboe is sometimes called the “hautboy.”
Then there’s the instruments named after other instruments or musical objects.
The Little Viola
The violin gets its name from the Italian word violino, meaning “little viola.” The viola is a bit larger than the violin and has a deeper tone.
The Little Violone
The cello was originally known by a longer name: “violoncello,” from “violone” (a similar instrument) + cello (a diminutive suffix).
The Little Drum
When you think of drums, those that create classic booming percussion sounds may come to mind more readily than the tambourine, but alas, the word “tambourine”—from the Middle Flemish word tamborijn—literally means “little drum.”
The String Drum
Finally, there’s the snare drum, a small drum with two drumheads. The word “snare” likely comes from the Dutch word snaar, meaning “string.” While that may seem odd, the lower drumhead of a snare drum actually has strings or wires stretched across it. These strings then vibrate and reverberate when the drummer strikes the upper drumhead.
If you could rename these instruments or others, what would you call them? (The guitar would obviously be a “stringy-strummy.”)
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