Soap & Its Word Origin
This modest inquiry foamed up when someone asked me what the Latin word for soap was. There was none. Soap was unknown to ancient Rome. The Romans bathed in water: hot water in a caldarium; lukewarm in a tepidarium and cold in a frigidarium.
Calidarium was a Hot Place
The word root in caldarium or its rarer, longer form calidarium, namely Latin calidus ‘hot,’ has a host of reflexes in later languages derived from Latin. Think of French chaud ‘hot, warm’; Italian caldo ‘hot’ and Spanish cálido ‘hot.’ An interesting, partially hidden reflex shows up in the large boiling kettle or cauldron of witch stories and cannibal movies. Cauldron is from calderone, an Italian augmentative of a putative form like *caldario ‘kettle,’ so that cauldron’s basic meaning is ‘big kettle.’ The French word for kettle, chaudière, is from the same root.
strigil and aryballos (little jug of oil)
After the hot bath or after gymnastic exercise, Romans scraped off dirt and sweat with an instrument called a strigil (‘STRIDGE-ul,’ rhymes with vigil) that looked like a curved butter knife (Latin strigilis > stringere ‘to touch lightly, to scrape, to strip off.’ Without bathing at all, Romans also sometimes rubbed olive oil on their skin and scraped it off with a strigil.
The Romans probably borrowed olive-oil cleansing from their ancient neighbours, the Etruscans, who in turn borrowed it from the Greeks. Thousands of years before Caesar rose from the bath to have a slave draw a strigil down his torso to remove the oil and dirt, Greeks were using a similar instrument. The very ancient Greek word is a bit of a tongue-twister for us, stlengis. Here are its nominative singular and genitive singular forms in Attic Greek στλεγγίς, στλεγγίδις. Its root is unknown and the word itself was replaced later in ancient Greek history with another word for oil scraper, xuster ‘scraper’ from Greek xuein ‘to polish, to scrape.’
The early Greeks cleaned their bodies with blocks of clay, sand, pumice and ashes, then anointed themselves with oil, and scraped off the oil and dirt with a stlengis. They also used oil with ashes. Clothes were washed without soap in streams.
When Greek males set off for morning exercise on the palaestra, they or their slave took with them a tiny container of olive oil attached to their stlengis. Olive oil was rubbed on the body before the exercise began and then scraped off, with the sweat and dirt, after the exercise.
Ancient Greeks did their push-ups ‘in the rude,’ as Victorian prissy-farts used to whisper. Our word gymnasium is merely a Latin version of the Greek gymnasion ‘nude exercise place’ from gymnos Greek ‘naked.’ In botany, a gymnosperm is a plant which has naked seeds, like the pine tree and the hemlock fir. The generic name of the little oil container carried by exercising Greeks was aryballos. Below is a charming little oil phial shaped like an owl that can be found in the Greek Antiquities Department in room 40 on the first floor of the Louvre museum in Paris.
Latin: Sapo, Saponis
The first appearance in extant Roman literature of a ‘soap’ word is in the writings of the Roman encyclopedist Pliny the Elder (23 -79 CE). His only surviving opus is The Natural History, an utterly non-scientific amassing of lore and ancient Roman knowledge riddled with folk error. It is a preposterous farrago of illogical nonsense but one of the most influential volumes in Latin. The reader gets to peek into the minds of first-century educated Romans and read what they believed about their world.
The word is sapo, saponis and Pliny tells us that Romans soldiers borrowed the word during the Gallic Wars: sapo, Galliarum hoc inuentum rutilandis capillis ‘sapo, invented by the Galls to dye hair.’
Later, the Roman army found Germanic tribes like the Teutones using sapo (the same root as English soap and ancestor of the modern German word for soap, Seife) to dye their hair red, but not to cleanse themselves or their clothes. Sapo did not take on the meaning ‘soap’ in Latin for hundreds, perhaps a thousand years.
Of what ingredients did sapo consist? Animal fats were boiled with ashes and the resultant medium was mixed with whatever dye materials were being used. The Teutonic colour most desired was red and the chief colorant was a dyestuff that is with us still, henna. The Romans imported henna from the Middle East where it is extracted from the leaves of a tropical plant, Lawsonia inermis. Hinna is the Arabic name for this plant. Roman traders, who, as sutlers and victuallers, usually accompanied Roman armies in order to sell things both to the soldiers and to their defeated enemies after the battle, took a supply of henna with them on all trips to the outer marches of the empire.
At the Wotanning Salon
To dye their hair red, Germanic tribes used several other local plants in their sapo mixture, but not henna, since it is killed by temperatures below 15°C. Among the northern European dye-ingredients that could produce reddish hair were walnut-shell extracts mixed with powdered iron oxides. Why did those proto-krauts love red hair? Well, for one thing, their main god Wotan was usually depicted as a hypertrophic Viking on steroids with fiery red hair and a voluminous russet beard in which most of the population of Latvia could hide.
“Gibt es etwas komisch über den Namen Wotan?”
History of Soap
From an internet history of soap: “A soap-like material found in clay cylinders during the excavation of ancient Babylon is evidence that soap-making was known as early as 2800 BCE. Inscriptions on the cylinders say that fats were boiled with ashes, which is a method of making soap, but do not refer to the purpose of the “soap.” Such materials were later used as hair styling aids and hair dyes. . . The ancient Egyptian Ebers Papyrus, a medical document from about 1500 BCE, describes combining animal and vegetable oils with alkaline salts to form a soap-like material used for treating skin diseases, as well as for washing. . . At about the same time, Moses gave the Israelites detailed laws governing personal cleanliness. He also related cleanliness to health and religious purification. Biblical accounts suggest that the Israelites knew that mixing ashes and oil produced a kind of hair gel.”
One question that arose when I was discussing the origin of the word soap: If the Romans borrowed the Teutonic or Gallic sapo, were the early Germans and Gauls washing with soap, as we now do, long before the Romans? One Germanophile who is always rootin’ for the Teuton said yes. History says no! Sapo was goop that one rubbed into one’s hair to dye it. While performing this capillary function over centuries, some unheralded shampooer discovered that the goop, perhaps minus the dyestuff, rendered one's sooty bod all clean and lovely. Thus was born modern cleansing soap.
By the second century CE, the Greek physician Galen recommended soap for both medicinal and cleansing purposes. But, after the fall, collapse, and shrinkage of the Roman empire, personal cleanliness took a major dive. Soapmaking, as a means of sudsing and cleansing the human body, was nowhere to be seen during the Dark Ages. What do you suppose hastened the Valkyrie-like ride of incessant plagues, vectored by lice and mice and filth back and forth across the continent of Europe? High levels of personal sanitation? No. Soapmaking only became an established craft in Europe by the seventh century CE. Very gradually more varieties of soap became available for shaving and shampooing, as well as bathing and laundering. England did not have soap-making guilds until the 12th century.
Etymology of the Word Soap
The ‘soap’ etymon (a technical term in linguistics for ‘word root’) is widespread in Indo-European languages. Hittite is the earliest Indo-European language we have found, in records written in cuneiform on baked clay tablets. Hittite is an extinct tongue spoken by a people who created an Anatolian empire in the twentieth century BCE that lasted until the twelfth century BCE. The Hittite verbal root meaning ‘to cleanse’ is sap. Sapiya was grease mixed with ashes, possibly a Hittite hair-dye medium. The word occurs in some Tartar languages and so the hair-dyeing goop may have been an early import to Greece and Rome and to the Teutons, introduced by early Hellenic trade with the East.
Modern English soap and Old English sap ‘resin’ are direct cognates of all the Germanic and Scandinavian ‘soap’ words. Modern German Seife is related, once we remember the Germanic /f/ for /p/ shift. One example: Latin piscis is German Fisch. Modern Dutch is zeep; Danish sæbe, French savon; Swedish såpa; Estonian seep; Finnish saippua; Modern Greek sapoúni; Roumanian sapun; Swahili sabuni; Italian sapone.
As one might expect, scientific English retains the full Latin form, so that, for example, the Botanical Latin name of the soapwort genus is Saponaria. Still an important process in industrial chemistry is saponification, the hydrolysis of a fat by alkali with the formation of salts of the fatty acids together with glycerol — essentially what happens when soap is made from ashes and heated fats.
That’s it, kiddies. I now wash my hands of this inquiry.
© 2012 copyright William Gordon Casselman
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