Another word whose etymology I had always vaguely wondered about but never investigated beyond the immediate source is meltemi, borrowed from Modern Greek and meaning ‘etesian (annual) summer wind in the Mediterranean’ (or “Etesian,” as Merriam-Webster would have it for some unknowable reason—it’s not from a proper noun but from an ordinary Greek adjective, etesios ‘annual’). I looked it up in the OED and found an interesting speculation:

Etymology: < modern Greek μελτέμι Etesian wind and the related Turkish meltem offshore breeze, of uncertain origin. Compare Italian meltem (19th cent.).
A possible etymon for both the Greek and the Turkish words (which are probably loanwords) is Italian maltempo bad weather.

I’d be interested to know why they think maltempo is a more plausible etymon than it looks at first glance, but an interesting speculation is better than a void.


  1. Trond Engen says:

    This is of course a question for Nich Nicholas, but he seems to have gone into hibernation.
    If I remember correctly, Italian loans in Greek, and especially those pertaining to navigation and trade, are from Venetian. Venetian (and Northern Italian in general) has lost masculine(/neuter) endings much like French (Milan, Turin). a > e is more difficult. Could that be an effect in the target language? Turkish vowel harmony?

  2. Also “breeze”, according to Online Etymology Dictionary, could come from O. Spanish but our Academy says that “brisa” has an uncertain origin.

  3. Trond Engen says:

    Cut and paste without the paste. Now I lost the final retorical question and afterthought: “And meltem be a back-loan? I don’t really believe that, though.”

  4. marie-lucie says:

    According to the TLFI (French online dictionary, very detailed), the word is attested in writing in several languages in the 16th century (eg French brise perhaps borrowed from Spanish brisa), but the earliest documents are in Catalan (brisa) and Italian (brezza), both attested in the 15th C. From there the origin is uncertain. English breeze is attested later. The Catalan and Italian words (of slightly different origins) seem to indicate that the original reference was for a wind of the Mediterranea, and the name was later adopted by sailors on other seas.
    In French, la brise over the land is a mild, pleasant wind, like breeze, but on the sea la brise de mer is a much stronger wind.

  5. Bert Bruins says:

    I was going to suggest that the Dutch “bries” might have influenced both anglo-saxon English “breeze” and Spanish “brisa” (Flemish/Dutch influence at Spanish 16th century court/Spanish troops in the Low Lands at this time), but the 15th C. Catalan and Italian references appear to make this less plausible….

  6. Nişanyan’s Turkish Etymological Dictionary gives the definition “a sea breeze blowing at certain times in the summer” and says that Greek μελτέμι is from Turkish, but gives a question mark for the etymology. I like the Venetian theory, though. Vowel harmonization is plausible for the a to e switch. Also, in modern Turkish /e/ has the allophone [æ] before /m n l r/, though I’m not sure how far back that goes.
    The dictionary says the first recorded instance was in Meninski’s Thesaurus linguarum orientalium. Meninski seems to be an interesting character (and one who surprisingly has not yet made it into the English Wikipedia): he worked for the courts of Poland and the Holy Roman Empire as an ambassador and interpreter, and had an acrimonious dispute with a certain Podesta, I’m not sure about what.

  7. marie-lucie says:

    Dutch bries
    The TLFI mentions English and other Germanic languages, the earliest citation from this group being a Friesian word (unfortunately, I can’t see all the diacritics, even the French ones, on my screen, so the Friesian has a question mark instead of the letter in the middle, thus br?se, that’s why I did not try to quote it). But the article concludes that the Germanic languages (whose usage of the word is attested toward the end of the 16C) borrowed the word from a Romance source, most likely Spanish.
    English breeze is perhaps more likely to have been borrowed (aurally) from French brise. This would mean that at the time of borrowing the English long vowel “ee” had already evolved into the sound found in French “i” (which is phonetically lengthened by the following [z] sound). The timing fits in with what is known of the gradual evolution of the English long vowels. Had French brise been borrowed a century or two earlier, an English “brise” might have now rhymed with “rise”.

  8. Between Trond and Stephen it looks like a good case has been made that the Turkish word (which thence entered Greek) derives from a Venetian cognate of Italian MALTEMPO.
    But something isn’t right with “Italian MELTEM”: (Tuscan) Italian words cannot (with a few monosyllabic exceptions) end in a consonant. Even if the word was re-borrowed from Greek or Turkish, I would expect some kind of phonological adaptation (cf. the more recent GIPPE, from English JEEP).

  9. Garrigus Carraig (f/k/a komfo,amonan) says:

    The incomplete word in TLFI is brîse.
    I would swear I once knew a woman named Meltemi, but can’t remember anything else about her.

  10. marie-lucie says:

    Thank you, GC.
    I don’t know why I can no longer see the accented letters in the TLFI. I used to, and I have not changed my computer or software. Fortunately, only the TLFI screens are affected. Here for instance I can type using either the US keyboard or the Canadian French one, which puts the accents in the right places (I also have the French keyboard, but there are more differences from the English keyboard with which I learned to type). I have to alternate with the US English keyboard to do italics, bold etc but that is not a big problem.

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