Tag Archives: sackbutt


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.


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.