As promised, this is my third (and so far, last) post inspired by the questions I’ve recently received. The answers would have been too long for my traditional “monthly gleanings”.
What is the origin of the name louver? Dictionaries and Internet sites unanimously say that the etymology sought is unknown or uncertain. Maybe, but we’ll see. First of all, a little note about the famous place may be of some help. Louvre has been the name of a royal castle in Paris since, if not even before, the 13th century. It follows that the name is medieval (Old French). Everything else is just smart guesswork. John Minsheuthe author of the first “thick” etymological dictionary of English (1617), derived louver from old French the open “open space”. His conjecture, which survived him several centuries, has nothing to recommend it. Initial I goes back to the definite article in quite a few French words (compare, for example, Latin hedera “ivy” and French ivyfrom the wanderfinally from (h) edera), but it would be impossible to explain the loss of final you in old French, and the idea of calling a chateau “an open space” would be difficult to justify.
The names of certain great buildings owe their origin to chance or to a whim. Pradolike the great Spanish museum (Prado Museum) is called, means “pre”. La Scala (in Milan) is of course “staircase” (“ladder”, so to speak), and the Hermitage (a magnificent building in Saint Petersburg) was never intended to be a hermit’s cell. We can therefore expect that the name louver also has a humble background.
Old French only provides a clue to the etymology of louverto know, lover “skylight”, and from there English has louver “the dome on a roof” and (a related architectural term) “a series of sloping boards to admit air and exclude rain”. The first meaning has been known in English since the 14th century (thus quite close to the time of the first attestation of the French word); the second is about two centuries later. The origin of the Old French name and its English descendant was discussed in detail and with a strong mix of emotions (great reputations were at stake). More than a hundred years ago, some of the best specialists offered their contradictory hypotheses. Their biggest handicap was the existence of several similar-sounding words meaning much the same as louver. The words refer to roofs and openings in the roof. Yet one of them should probably be excluded from consideration.
An active participant in the discussion was AL Mayhew (among his opponents are Frank Chance and Ernest Weekley). Only Weekley’s name is still familiar to quite a few, but the obscurity of the other two has nothing to do with their exploits. These days, the history of English (or any other language for that matter) is rarely taught in our colleges. Naturally, those who wrote it are forgotten. The word Mayhew is talking about is Icelandic hloð “chimney” (pronounced: deepwith voice and). This did not occur in the Old Language and historically must refer to a stack of bricks, as Old English hōð meant “troop; loot” (thus “a heap”, something loaded, loaded). The first edition of WD mentioned Mayhew’s hypothesis but (wisely) didn’t commit. From today’s perspective, his suggestion doesn’t have much to recommend it. Conversely, Old Icelandic ljori “a hole in the roof” seems to be close to lover, but its origin is also not entirely clear. A mix of I-words and roots was cited in connection with louver: English attic (and then of course German Luft “air”, understood as “the roof of the world”), German Dawn “arbor”, English lodgeand English lobby. The suspicious medieval Latin name lodarium figured prominently in the research. These words tended to travel between Germanic and Romanesque, changing their mid-consonants along the way, but all vaguely referring to a higher structure (roof, hole in the roof, chimney, etc.) or to light and lanterns on the roof. Conversely, the German Dawn “arbor”, English leafand Dutch Luifelthe latter corresponding to English lobby and lodge, suggest that the structure had a roof covered with some foliage. Too many choices often kills etymology.
Same the sink was brought into play: “A lever, when it is used, forms with the flat surface against which it is pressed an angle very similar to the angle formed by an open skylight” (Frank Chance). the lob– the forms have been associated more than once with lup-, the Latin root lupus “Wolf.” What do wolves and skylights have in common? The same Frank Chance, one of my favorite etymologists of James A. H. Murray and Walter W. Skeatwrote in 1894: “…occurring one day at Fontainebleau looking out a window on a rooftop with an open skylight, the connection (sic) crossed my mind in a second; for the angle formed by the open skylight with the roof immediately reminded me of the open mouth of a long-mouthed animal, such as a wolf, while the relative obscurity of the inner end made it look like the open mouth of a wolf with the darkness of its throat beyond. And F. Chance cited some examples of words meaning “wolf’s mouth” and “lantern”! The two propositions (louver/lever and louvre/lupus), coming from a prominent scholar, sounds bizarre to say the least, but a look at the history of our vocabulary around the world shows that the most unpredictable associations can give wordmakers impulses. Violins on the roof, lanterns on the roof… From 1845, John Parkerin his ever popular A concise Glossary of architectural termssuggested that the Louvre in Paris owes its name to a lantern of this type but provided no evidence to confirm his hypothesis.
By then it must have become clear that a fully convincing etymology of English louver does not exist, however, whatever the root of the word, it probably referred to light, an opening letting in light, or a leafy cover. Lodge and lobby are linked to it. Other similar words (such as those recorded in Scandinavian languages) may also belong here. louver reached Middle English from Old French, but it appears to be of Germanic origin. Words that sprang (or would you rather on springs?) raised in Germanic, emigrated to France, and returned to the continent or to England are numerous.
Even if no dictionary gives the etymology of the French name, I believe that the essential can be said with some confidence: louver and English louver are historically the same word. The place was hardly named because it had a lantern on its roof or looked like the open mouth of a wolf. The presence of leaves remains an enigma. I only have to dispute Skeat’s final statement: “Probably an opening above a fireplace; of Icel. hōð, n. pl. a home. The 1966 Oxford English Etymology Dictionary does not mention the Mayhew hypothesis. Be that as it may, the old discussion (1882-1894) of the English word, its French cognate, and its dubious medieval Latin etymon, a discussion conducted in two excellent periodicals, Notes and queries and The Academy, reads like a thriller. References are in my Bibliography from English etymology, but I also have copies of a few publications not listed there (if anyone is interested). To conclude: Louvre, so famous in French, is very probably a name of Germanic origin, the reference being to the roof of the building.