sackbut

There are some words where you can make a pun that seems obvious to you and people will say, “I never thought of that.” I really don’t think this is one of those words.

You see (in case you didn’t know), sackbut (also seen as sackbutt) is not a word for baggy pants or a sagging bottom (even though sagbutt is an old alternate spelling). No, it names a musical instrument, and by that I don’t mean the kind of wind instrument whereby hangs a tail (as a clown in Othello put it). I don’t even mean a bagpipe. Nope, this is a wind instrument, but it’s an old version of one that is better known today by another name that appears to contain a word akin to butt but doesn’t really.

A few of you may be thinking, “Wind instrument? But in the book of Daniel in the Bible, sackbut refers to a stringed instrument!” Yes, that’s because the Arabic sabb’ka, rendered as σαμβύκη sambuké in the Greek, was mistranslated.

This word does not actually come from Arabic. No, it comes into English from Norman French. It comes from saqueboute, which also was the name of a lance with a hook used for pulling men off horses (think of that next time you’re watching football and a quarterback is peeling down the field when someone sacks his butt – much harder when it’s off your high horse). The saque comes from saquer, “pull”; the boute probably comes from bouter “push”.

So is this instrument named after a big gaff? Not necessarily, even though the English version of its name looks like a big gaffe. There is a sort of reminiscence of that shape in the instrument, but the instrument also has the feature that it is pushed and pulled – the tube is slid in and out. This means that it can play any frequency within its range, not just certain stops, and it can make smooth glissandos.

You probably have figured out what the modern version of this instrument is called: a name that is somewhat smoother sounding due to nasals and a voiced stop – trombone (Italian for “big trumpet”). Now, for a bloke like me, bone and butt go together (this is why my desk chair is so soft). But bones are hard, unlike the sound of a trombone. Well, the sound of the word sackbut is certainly hard, too. It sounds more like something you play on the drums and cymbals, or like a skeleton sitting down on a wooden chair. Nor is the shape of the word any cue to the shape of the instrument, which really recalls a paper clip (paper clips are called trombones in French, after all).

So why not just call the instrument a trombone? A couple of reasons. First, the mediaeval version is a bit different and produces a mellower sound, so if you’re playing on the period version of the instrument, you might as well call it the period name. Second, it’s attention-getting. It may seem like a ridiculous word, but it can really stick in the mind, and it has that quaintness and slight strangeness that can set the tone for archaisms in English, and it’s characteristic of the dry intellectual wit you expect from early-music geeks. And this is why there is a respected ensemble called His Majestys Sagbutts & Cornetts.

And now it’s time for me to hit the sack, but… well, no buts.

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