espadrille

This seems like a nice, frilly word. It strikes me as somehow redolent of the a Southern Belle, standing under the espalier at the cotillion ready to dance a quadrille in her best gown and high-heeled shoes. Or perhaps she is gazing at some dashing Spaniard doing fencing drills con capa y espada (with cape and sword). But at any rate the word does not taste lean, laconic, or spartan; it has ruffles and frills in its appearance, the p and d and ll and that extra curlicue e at the end.

Do you happen to know what an espadrille is? If not, please take a moment to hazard your own guess. If you do, think about what you would think it meant if you didn’t know what it meant. I’ll grab a sherry and be right back.

So? It is not a curly salad green (escarole) or a snail that might crawl on it (escargot). It is not a trellis, not a ball, not a dance, not a dress, not a high-heeled… Oh, wait, they do make high-heeled espadrilles too. But mostly they are flat-soled. Yes, they are shoes: those shoes with rope soles. They are fairly un-fancy, with their canvas uppers like tennis shoes (without laces); the intricate bit is just the jute braiding that makes up the sole. They’re worn all over the world, but they’re originally from the Pyrenees.

And originally, I should say, the soles were made with rope not of jute but of esparto (sometimes they still are). Esparto is a tall grass that grows in northwest Africa and southern Spain. The word esparto is the source of espadrille; you can see that the /t/ and /r/ underwent metathesis (reversal of order) and the /t/ became a /d/. The immediate source of espadrille is Provençal espardillo.

But what does esparto come from? From Latin spartum, from Greek σπάρτον sparton “a rope made with σπάρτος spartos”; spartos was the Greek name for the plant or for another similar one.

Does that make you wonder if Sparta has the same origin? Indeed, it seems that it does, though it is not known exactly what the association was between the plant or its rope and the famous Greek city (that was known for its disciplined and laconic warriors, who played a major part in the defeat of Troy – Helen was, after all, queen of Sparta before being taken by Paris to Troy). Where, by the way, is that city? In Laconia – whence the word laconic.

Which, as we can see, I am not. Nor spartan. But I also own no espadrilles. Unless you ask someone from Quebec, that is; in Québecois French, espadrilles is a normal word for runners or sneakers.

5 responses to “espadrille

  1. Anyone who grew up in the 80s will instantly know this word ‘espadrilles’ as they were the footwear fad of the decade made popular by the then new US TV series ‘Miami Vice’.
    I wonder if ‘esparto’ is related to such words as Latin ‘spartium’ – the plant Spanish or Weaver’s Broom (Spartium junceum); or words for string, twine: spárga (Hungarian); sparzèna (Romagnolo) and spago (Italian) better known in its plural diminutive form spaghetti?

    • Spartium junceum, Spanish broom, is a leguminous plant unrelated to esparto grass, Stipa or Macrochloa tenacissima, but in former times names leaked easily between unrelated plants. This kind of broom was once woven into baskets, but whether that is the link with σπάρτον/spartum in the sense of a cord or rope, or whether the plant is named because it was seen in Sparta, I don’t know.

      I looked up possible links between σπάρτον/spartum and words for ‘string’ such as spago in the Meyer-Lübke Romanisches etymologicshes Wörterbuch, and it says the the theoretical late Latin word *spagum (* means ‘not attested’) can’t be derived from sparticus, Spartan. So I suppose that rules out any similar link. This dictionary lists spartum, in the sense of esparto grass, as a completely separate item, and the only words it gives that are derived from this all relate to ‘esparto’ or ‘espadrille’, and not to words for string or rope.

  2. Another related/derived word from chemistry: ‘sparteine’ – a viscous oily alkaloid extracted from the broom plant and lupin seeds. It has been used in medicine to treat heart arrhythmias. (C19 from New Latin spartium, from Greek σπάρτος spartos ‘broom’)

  3. Returning to the subject of the wildly inaccurate names of the ancients for living creatures: στρουθός means both a sparrow and an ostrich; also a Stymphalian bird, a hen, a flounder, an unknown kind of plant and a lecher.

  4. Which is why we should all say three cheers for Linnaean binomial nomenclature!

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