Ever wonder where some of those terms you use while climbing come from? Our European correspondent is here with some mountaineering etymology for you. By M. Michael Brady
The lingo of mountaineering reflects the pursuit of it in many cultures. Many mountaineering terms in English result from the intermingling of languages over time, as with French. The word “avalanche” is a loanword directly from French. It first appeared in English in 1769, in “A Tour in Scotland” by Welsh naturalist Thomas Pennant (1726-1798). The adoption of many other terms has been more arbitrary. The word “rappel” is an intriguing example.
Like “avalanche”, “rappel” is a loanword from French. But English adopted just two of its eight meanings. Until the mid 19th century, “rappel” in English meant the ceremonial roll of drums to summon soldiers to arms. In 1931, an article in The Times (UK) Literary Supplement added the second meaning of roping down by mentioning the rappel as a technique used in climbs of Mont Blanc in France. With time, the first meaning apparently fell into disuse, as today it’s not in the desk edition of the Oxford English Dictionary (OED), though it survives in the Complete OED. Today, in American as well as British English, “rappel” is used only in its mountaineering sense.
Not so in French. Today, the mountaineering use of the word is the seventh of its eight meanings. The first and most prominent use of the word “rappel” is as the imperative form of the French transitive verb rappeler, which means “to remember”. It appears alongside roads on rectangular regulatory plates under speed limit signs to remind drivers of the maximum allowable speeds within a speed control zones.
In the timeline of mountaineering, rappelling is French. It was first done in 1876 by Chamonix guide Jean Charlet-Straton (1840-1925) in a failed solo attempt of Petit Dru, a needle in the Mont Blanc massif. After several more unsuccessful solo attempts, in 1879 he attained the summit in a party of three with two other Chamonix guides.
By the turn of the last century, rappelling had become a standard mountaineering technique, called abseiling by British climbers, after abseilen, a descriptive term used by German-speaking climbers. In 1911, German climber and inventor Otto Herzog (1888-1964) first used a “carabiner”, so respelled in English, from the German Karabinerhaken, a descriptive term for a snap link based on a rifle hook. In turn, the use of the carabiner was linked to the first invention of the piton by Austrian guide Hans Fiechtl (1884-1925) and the testing of it by German climber Hans Dülfer (1892-1915).
Other German words followed into English in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, most prominently two loanwords, “rucksack” in 1866 and “kletterschuh” in 1920. The adoption of the word “kletterschuh”, a special rock climbing shoe with a cloth or felt sole, reflected the travels of the mountaineers of the time, as it was sometimes described as a variant of scarpetti, an equivalent Italian shoe with rope soles first used in the Dolomites. Both terms remain in English today.
The languages of the British Isles also contributed terms to mountaineering lingo. In mountaineering, the most familiar one perhaps is “cairn”, the term for a pile of stones used to mark a trail. It’s a Gaelic word that first appeared in English in 1535, in a description of a memorial pyramid of rough stones in Scotland. And there’s at least one instance of an Englishman inadvertently promoting the use of a loanword in the geography of mountains.
In 1921, upon first seeing a huge cirque on Mount Everest, English mountaineer George Leigh Mallory (1886-1924) named it the “Western Cwm”, with “”cwm” being the Welsh word describing a bowl-shaped hollow formed by a glacier. That brought cwm into the lingo of mountaineering, to compete with synonyms “cirque”, a loanword from French, and corrie” a loanword from a Gaelic term used to describe terrain in the Scottish Highlands.
As English has adopted words from other languages, it also has contributed to them, sometimes in odd ways. Thanks to the writings of Geoffrey Chaucer (1343-1400), English speakers are familiar with many ribald words, such as “fart.” But before Chaucer’s time, in the mix of English with Nordic and Teutonic languages, “fart” also meant “to send forth.” It was Chaucer that gave the word the meaning of sending wind forth from the anus, but there were other meanings still evident today. In modern Norwegian, the word fart” translates to “speed” or “travel”, as in sakte fart (“low speed”) that’s used at all elevations on road and waterway signs advising vehicles and vessels to slow down. That usage has had a side effect. In the port of Kragerø in Telemark County, an old footbridge at the entrance to the harbor that has a “SAKTE FART” warning sign to boats on the underlying waterway has become one of the more popular city scenes for young English-speaking tourists taking photos of themselves.
#1 and #2 by M. Michael Brady. Canton of Côte Vermeille coastal highway, Mediterranean France, April 2015.
#3 Petit Dru in Mont Blanc Massif, Chamonix, France; rappelling first done here in 1876. By Eturisto at French Wikipedia, Wikimedia Commons free documentation license,