Word for Wednesday: Umbrella

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Here is another delightful word for you this week and with the predictably dismal autumnal weather in England, one that I have found myself using much more than I would prefer.

Although the word itself is relatively new, the invention itself has existed for well over three thousand years. The invention can be traced to Ancient China, but there is also evidence of usage in Egypt and India from around the same time.

Once designed as a sunshade, the Umbrella now almost exclusively serves to protect us from the rain. However, the name remains the same: Umbrella is a 16th century word derived from the Latin ‘umbra’ or ‘shade’.

Historically there have been associations of class and status with the use of an umbrella, particularly in East Asia and Africa. See the elegance suggested in Monet’s ‘Woman with a Parasol’. Nowadays, umbrellas are commonplace and easily available. At first they weren’t even considered suitable for men! I suppose practicality has outmuscled tradition in this case.

As with many popular inventions, their widespread use and familiarity has spawned many slang and informal variants. How many words do we have for Television? In England, ‘brolly’ is a particular favourite, although the French was also used: the beautiful word ‘parapluie’. But more obscure variations exist such as ‘gamp’ and the American slang ‘bumbershoot’ – sounds like a nonce straight out of Roald Dahl!

It’s also worth noting the other contexts that the word umbrella has lent itself to, the Oxford Dictionary gives another definition: ‘a protective force or influence’ (perhaps when referring to warfare). You can also use the word umbrella as a modifier: an ‘umbrella term’ for instance, is a term that encompasses many different definitions or interpretations.

That’s all for this week, stay dry!

Hugh MacDermott


23 Oct 2013
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