Increase your knowledge of English vocabulary by tracing the origins of words we borrowed to name our drinks
At the Wording Desk
Ah, champagne — cork popped, amber elixir effused in glassy flute, soon sipped to be savored by lingual papillae. The spumous jig of fizz upon the tasting tongue, the golden-bubbled froth that, cresting sub uvula upon the pendent margin of the palate, cries, “Tonsils, stand aside, that down this rosy gullet spumescent foam may flow, the straw-hued ferment of a thousand suns.”
The ever effervescent champers, nose-tickling and tastebud-delighting bubbly, takes its name from a province of eastern France, not too far from Paris.
She of the little black dress, elfin gamin, rococo Coco Chanel herself said champagne delighted her only in two life modes — when she was in love and when she wasn’t.
The quaint anachronism of rigorous grammatical gender, so burdensome in French, decrees that the wine is masculine, le champagne, and the vine-nurturing yet poor loam of the province itself is feminine, la Champagne.
How was Province of Champagne named?
The victorious Roman general Marcus Vipsanius Agrippa (63 – 12 BCE) (he won the Battle of Actium, defeating Mark Antony and keeping the aspy Cleopatra out of Roman hair) is said to have built the first Roman military road that terminated at Durocortorum, the principal town of a Gallic tribe named the Remi.
The Romans began the names that became in English Rheims or Reims, champagne headquarters of France and still capital city of Champagne. Roman army victualers and sutlers, it is said in legend, brought the first grape vines, bagged on donkeys, kept watered on the bumpy journey by slaves, provisioning outposts of the empire with rough Roman vines from Campania in Italy and planting the viniferous creepers in the perfect chalky substrates around Rheims where, after hundreds of years of hand-rubbed hybrids and bee-blessed crossings, the vines eventually blossomed forth with grapes that would enable the making of champagne.
By the sixth century we have a written record calling the area Campania Remensis, Latin ‘the countryside around Rheims.’
Roman officials and soldiers posted to the area were perhaps reminded, by the vineyards and fertility of Rheims, of their native Italy and the fertile plains of Campania Felix south of Rome. In Latin campania means ‘land of fields’ from Latin campus ‘field’ but with the implicit sensory addendum, the developed meaning, of ‘country abounding in fields, country that consists therefore of fertile, level plains.’
Some translate the Latin adjective felix as ‘fortunate’ so that Campania Felix might mean “Lucky Old Campania! Wah-hoo!” I’m afraid not. The root in felix is *fe which suggests always fecundity, teeming uberousness. The developed meaning of lucky or fortunate comes later. You were lucky because you experienced fecundity: your fields were golden with grain; your cattle calved; your ewes lambed; your wife was a multipara.
The *fe root shows up in words like fertile, female, and fetus. Cats litter many kittens and so their Latin name was feles, felis. Such a feline has a name, feles, one that means literally in Latin ‘she who bears young.’ Thus Felix the Feline, with his doubly propitious moniker would probably be father of hundreds of kittens!
Campania was felix to the Romans because, for hundreds of years, in Campanian fields grew all the grain that became bread for the city of Rome, at least until the Roman capture of Egypt allowed the import of Nile-watered wheat.
The Romans applied the word campania to other European flatlands. For example, the central plain of Hungary, the puszta, dry grassland once teeming with cattle, was in postclassical Latin Campania Pannonica.
Brief History of the Bubbly Itself
Cloudy, non-descript red wine had been made in Champagne for more than a thousand years by the only oenologists of the time, monks who needed income from the wine to operate their monasteries. This first Champagne wine had no bubbles and no reputation except as the crudest vin de table. The first sparkling wine from Champagne did not appear until the turn of the 18th century. The French monk Dom Pierre Pérignon did not invent champagne but he did introduce various production and bottling improvements. It is thought that he might have been the first to keep the cork from blowing its place during fermentation by means of a wire collar secured to the neck of the champagne bottle.
Thanks to clever vintners, very early in its bubbling career, Rheims’ champagne became associated with French royalty. For centuries, from Clovis onward, all French kings were crowned in the Cathedral of Rheims, about a hundred miles from Paris. It was the Westminster Abbey of France. Fleurs-de-lis stitched deftly into cloth-of-gold twinkled like stars upon royal shoulders. Stone cathedral aisles bore the light tred of slippered velvet and the stomp of boots of French leather supple as butter. Afterwards the new king’s health was drunk with Champagne’s wines. Other European potentates attending French coronations took news of champagne and samples back to their own baroque banquets and regal feastings. Later, as the French middle classes grew richer, they looked for visible symbols of wealth to flaunt and found that greed could be voluptuous, found one perk that could be swallowed — champagne.
What about the Word Campaign?
As early as the 16th century, Italian used campagna in the military sense of army operations in open country (where most pitched battles of European history took place). Campagna stemmed from Latin Campania. French probably borrowed this sense and form to give campagne ‘field of battle.’ Metaphorical extension of the word to describe a political field of battle as in ‘election campaign’ came later in French and English, rising in frequency of use throughout the 19th century.
The Oxford English Dictionary has this useful note in its Second Edition, 1989: “The name arose in the earlier conditions of warfare, according to which an army remained in quarters (in towns, garrisons, fortresses, or camps) during the winter, and on the approach of summer issued forth into the open country (nella campagna, dans la campagne) or ‘took the field’, until the close of the season again suspended active operations.”
And we’ll end on a tangential note indeed. Someone vetting this column just asked me if the Italian word for belltower, campanile, and its root campana, Italian for 'bell,' are related to the words above. Well, according to ancient wordhounds they are. Isidore of Seville states that the first bell foundry in Italy was in the city of Nola in Campania, as was the first belfry in a church and the first bell cast and gonged. There is no proof of such claims.
Saint Isidore of Seville (560 – 636 CE), a bishop, was the author of one of the most popular books of word lore ever written. From the time of its first appearance in the 630s CE, his Etymologies has never been out of print. Isidore’s derivations belong to his time; many are obsolete or wrong; most are associative folk etymologies similar to the multiple errors in the Old Testament where the original writers in Hebrew made wild guesses about word relationships based on whether the words sounded the same. But, for the careful historian, Isidore has been recently translated in this new century and offers a trove of lore, spurious indeed but believed by the late classical world to be fact.
Let 2017 be your annus champagnensis!
Bill Casselman, December 2016
Text Copyright 2016 William Gordon Casselman