I’m going to hit the sack, but I have a word for you first. It’s a word I think of every so often, and Tom Allen mentioned it again today on his CBC Radio program, Shift. It’s sackbut. Also spelled sackbutt and sagbutt, and a few other ways, as we shall see.

I have to be honest, as much as I love early music (meaning, variably depending on who’s saying it, from before about the 17th century; not meaning played before 9 in the morning), I think of this word more often when walking down the street and looking at the various clothing fashions promenading thereabout.

I think you know where I’m going with this. Some pants do not fit the fundaments very well. They sag in the butt, so that it looks like the person’s bottom has been dumped into a sack.

Well, this word has nothing at all to do with that. But no one can possibly be blamed for thinking of it. Because what it does have to do with is not something that obviously connects with it. Yes, both have to do with wind instruments, in the broadest sense, but…

…sackbuts sound like this (in conjunction with some cornets):

So, yes, rather more refined and all that.

And you can see one, or anyway one end of one, next to Stephanie Dyer in this video:

Yes. A sackbut is basically an old trombone. There are differences in design from modern trombones, so the distinction is one worth making, but if you take trombone as the class of brass instruments with sliders, a sackbut is a member of that class. And Stephanie Dyer even introduces herself as a trombonist. So there you have it.

If you don’t hear (or see) the word sackbut too often these days, that’s because sackbuts are indeed instruments from another time. Their revival (such as it is) is due very much to a group that was at the vanguard of the early music movement in the 1980s: His Majestys Sagbutts and Cornetts, which – for that early feeling – uses an older spelling. You can find out a bit about the group’s origins from Jeremy West:

The question that remains is, “Why the name?”

And the answer is, “It comes from French saquebute, which was formerly saqueboute or saquebotte.” The next answer is that the French word comes from an Old French word for ‘pull’ – saquier – and another Old French word, most likely bouter, which means (and meant) ‘push’. So it’s actually (apparently) a pullpush.

Which might seem a bit weird and Doctor Dolittle-ish, until you remember that the instrument we call a piano is in full a pianoforte, which is Italian for quietloud; it got its name from the fact that you could play it with a wide dynamic range, unlike the keyboard instruments that had been around to that time (harpsichords, clavichords, etc.). If you can have a quietloud, you can have a pullpush. I suppose you could even play them together, though I don’t know who has written a piece for that duo.

So there you have it. As the Oxford English Dictionary documents, the spelling of the English word went through several variations, as was typical for English words in the 1500s, 1600s, and 1700s: sagbut, sagbot, sagbout, saggebut, sagbutt, shagbot, shagbote, shakbott, shakbut, shakbutt, shakebut, shakebutt (no attestation of shakebooty, though), shagbush (no comment), shagbut, sackbot, sackbutt, sacke-but, sacbutt, sacbut, and finally settling on sackbut. And, of course, if you want to seem old style, you can pick an auncient spelling.

But now, I’m hitting the sack.

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