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Several English etymological sources say violin is from Latin vitula. A vitula/vitulus is a calf. But why was the instrument named after a calf?

But some sources say this vitula may be from vitulari "to make merry", which is probably related to Vitula "goddess of joy". This would make sense, but it is a little bit vague.

If it is derived from vitula "calf", was it perhaps because the strings were originally made of calf gut? I have not seen this possibility anywhere, but I read somewhere that a vitula could be any stringed instrument.

It seems the goddess and the verb have a long i, whereas the calf and its derivatives have a short i. Another interesting word is Vĭtŭlārĭa via, a road near Arpinum.

As a bonus question, when was this word first used for a musical instrument? Did it happen in Antiquity already, or in Mediaeval Italy, or somewhere else?

  • A good survey of this debated question: dwds.de/wb/Violine – fdb Jul 21 '17 at 22:03
  • @fdb: Very Interesting! So Pfeifer (whom I did not know) thinks the relation to vitula is unlikely. But he doesn't go any farther back than Old Provençal. I'm sure there are more etymological dictionaries that have some idea about this, though. Edit: I see Philippa's entry is more elaborate, and mentions more sources: etymologiebank.nl/trefwoord/viool1 – Cerberus Jul 21 '17 at 23:03
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I found this article, which you may have read already. I am not entirely convinced by all the etymological discussion in it. In particular, it suggests that 'vitula' evolved into 'fides', but 'fides', meaning a stringed instrument, dates back to at least the time of Plautus (see Epidicus 3.4). I can, though, see easily, given the way consonantal sounds changed and sometimes disappeared, how 'vitula' might evolve through 'fidula' into the English 'fiddle' - and how it might also evolve through 'vidula'/'fidula' (both used in medieval times) into viol and vielle.

Incidentally, you will note that Robert Jesselson speculates that 'vitula' may have come to refer to a stringed instrument because the strings were made of calf or heifer gut. So there are others who have had this thought!

I should warn you that I am no Latin expert.

  • That's a very interesting article! Not only because of the suggested etymology and the calf guts, but also more generally because of the history of stringed instruments. // I share your scepsis about vitula → fides: Latin dictionaries mention no conexion between the two words. Lewis & Short say fides is cognate with Greek σφίδη, about which I can only find information in New Greek dictionaries: greek_greek.enacademic.com/167885/… It seems to come from a word meaning "nerve, tendon", possibly from a non-Indo-European word. – Cerberus Jul 31 '17 at 16:11

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