I just finished Jane Stevenson’s The Winter Queen, which considerably disappointed me: Elizabeth Stuart had a long and interesting life, intimately tied up with the maddeningly complex Thirty Years’ War (which began with her husband‘s election as King of Bohemia, making war with the Habsburgs inevitable, and one strand of which was the couple’s long struggle, from their Dutch exile, to recover the Palatinate), but the book (despite the promise of the title) focuses almost entirely on an invented character, a prince of the Yoruba kingdom of Oyo who after spending years as a slave in the Dutch East Indies is freed and sent to Leiden to study theology. The plot is absurd, but my main complaint is that by forcing together two utterly different histories and cultures, each complex and obscure enough to deserve (and require) its own book to establish its reality in the reader’s mind, the novel fails to do justice to either, tossing in a few facts about each more as exotic ornaments than as parts of a coherent pattern. (Contrast, say, Mary Renault, who brilliantly brings an alien time and culture to vivid life in her novels about Ancient Greece.) Furthermore, though this is a minor irritation, it’s written in standard Historical Novelese, with solemn avoidance of contractions and use of musty words and turns of phrase: “I cannot tell. Charles has no money to pay mercenaries and is not like to get any. I do not think that the war will go beyond the seas, since I cannot see that anyone will aid my brother. In any case, Parliament blockades the sea…”

However, I did learn some interesting words. For instance, did you know that spagyric is an old word meaning ‘alchemy,’ ‘alchemist,’ or ‘alchemical’? (1593 G. HARVEY Pierce’s Super. 29 Yet who such monarches for Phisique, Chirurgery, Spagirique,.. as some of these arrant impostors?; 1613 DRUMMOND OF HAWTHORNDEN Cypress Grove Wks. 127 Can the spagyrick by his art restore, for a Space, to the dry and withered Rose, the natural Purple and Blush; c1643 LD. HERBERT Autobiog. 49 As for the Chymic or Spagyric Medicines, I cannot commend them to the use of my posterity.) And in investigating the Palatinate I learned that “In the Golden Bull of 1356, the Palatinate was made one of the secular electorates, and given the hereditary offices of Archsteward (Erztruchseß) of the Empire and Imperial Vicar (Reichsverweser) of the western half of Germany. From this time forth, the Count Palatine of the Rhine was usually known as the Elector Palatine (Kurfürst von der Pfalz)”—I’m always on the lookout for impressive titles.

But what brought me up short was discovering that the word Yoruba is a recent creation; the page on Oyo linked above says it originated “during the nineteenth century, applied not by the Yoruba themselves but by outsiders to describe a series of city-states where variations of the same language were spoken.” Andrew Dalby’s Dictionary of Languages agrees: “Yoruba was originally an outsiders’ name for the language and people, but it has long been widely accepted.” The OED just says “Native name”; does anybody have any further information on the origin of the word?

By the way, if you have any interest in the most famous Yoruba writer, Wole Soyinka, please read the long and thoughtful comment by “St Antonym” in this Cassandra Pages thread.


  1. Oh! Oh! I can’t stand Historical Novelese; just that little bit makes me shudder. Like hearing fingernails on a blackboard.

  2. Yeah, sounds awful. About ‘spagyric’, this word turned up in a very silly biography of Paracelsus, which also produced other treasures (OEDing highly recommended!), like ‘blas’ (coined by Van Helmont, who also invented ‘gas’), ‘azoth’, ‘hydrargyrum’ and ‘alkahest’. Good old alchemical mumbo-jumbo!

  3. I can’t speak for Yoruba, but it often seems that the names used for many ethnic groups is either (A) a name given to them by another group (sometimes derogatory, as in the case of the San), or (B) that group’s generic term for “people.”
    From an anthropological point of view this is not surprising, as the concept of “ethnic groups” is itself a fairly modern concept, often imposed through the bureaucratic practices of colonialism such as census taking. In many cases the British even invented ethnic groups out of thin air in order to simplify the process of record keeping. This gave rigidity to what were much more fluid definitions of identity in the pre-colonial era. Earlier, it was not so necessary to have a name which identified one as a member of an ethnic group (as opposed to, for instance, the subject of a kingdom). One might think of such naming practices as the extension of Herder’s concept of “volk” into the African context.

  4. Kerim: it is true that the modern notion of ethnicity is an Enlightenment invention, but your statement is a bit too sweeping. In the Old Testament for instance, something akin to “ethnic purity” is obviously very important, hence the repeated provisions against exogamy, as well as the vast swell of names for tribes and groups of peoples–and exactly what types of entities these names designate is (or at least was) hotly debated by modern scholars. The Israelites were a self-consciously separate group of people (ethnic group?) long before the Romans came and designated them ‘Judaeus’. Compare the etymology of ‘Hebrew’, however, as ‘those over the river’.

  5. Yoruba. Light of my life, fire of my loins. Yo-ru-ba. The historiography, where it isn’t murky, is scant. It is frustrating to look into one’s past and see only darkness and false leads. I can imagine how Americans must feel.
    Until the late nineteenth or early twentieth century, the Yoruba were “those other people” over to the North or South of us, or those people beyond that river. We, on the other hand, were Ife or Oyo or Ijebu or Owo or inhabitants of whatever Yoruba-speaking city state we belonged to. Everybody paid homage to the king at Ife, sure, but no one was Yoruba exactly.
    This seems to give credence to the notion that the name “Yoruba” was imposed from without. Our name for our kind i.e. those others in our language group, was “Aku” (a generic greeting, something close to the “good” in “good morning” or “good afternoon”) or “Omo kaaro a ji ire” (children of good morning you have risen well). The latter phrase is fossilized in the language as a term of endearment or praise.
    My Yoruba dictionary infuriatingly lacks an entry for “Yoruba.” And it even lacks an entry for “Yarabi,” which occurs in a Soyinka play. His plays are all in English, but sometimes feature bits of Yoruba. “Yarabi” is translated in a footnote as “destiny or the Divinity.” This is all tangential, but bear with me. That word “Yarabi” has always been very interesting to me, as something similar to it occurs in the Manding languages of Mali (“Diaraby” occurs as a refrain in many of their songs, and I believe it means “world”). Isn’t there a similar word in Hindi, Urdu, Arabic? It could be that the Yoruba word “Yarabi” is borrowed from Hausa which itself is heavily indebted to Arabic. This is bad etymology (forgive me, Venerable Hat, I know how this baseless seeking of cognates irritates you), but we amateurs can’t resist such flights of tomfoolery. Perhaps a reader can enlighten me on the question?
    Back to “Yoruba.” The Sultan Bello of Sokoto (he died in 1837) states the following concerning the Yoruba people (it is quoted in Alan Burns, “History of Nigeria,” Allen and Unwin, 1929):
    “it is supposed [they] originated from the remnants of the children of Canaan, who were of the tribe of Nimrod. The cause of their establishment in the west of Africa was, as it is stated, in consequence of their being driven by Yaa-rooba, son of Kahtan, out of Arabia to the western coast between Egypt and Abyssinia. From that spot they advanced into the interior of Africa till they reached Yarba, where they fixed their residence. On their way they left, in every place they stopped at, a tribe of their own people. Thus it is supposed that all the tribes of the Soodan, who inhabit the mountains, are originated from them, as also are the inhabitants of Ya-ory.”
    Burns has a footnote indicating that this information was collected by Denham and Clapperton in their “Travels.”
    What it all means is anyone guess. What do you do with “children of Nimrod”? The peculiar thing is that the various Yoruba sub-groups have a firmer history, individually. The Ijebu (“my people,” so to speak), for example, traded with the Portuguese in the 1700s, and they are identified in documents of the time as “Jaboo.”

  6. I was hoping you would show up, S’Anto, and give us the benefit of what I confidently (and rightly) suspected was your knowledge and informed opinion. Don’t worry, I deprecate “baseless seeking of cognates” only when centuries of work has produced hard-won knowledge that is being ignored in favor of fancy; with most African languages (Bantu aside), that work has only recently begun, and all anyone can do is cast about for apparent cognates. I once had a very interesting exchange with the head of etymology at Merriam-Webster about the word aggry (a kind of millefiori glass bead); his explanation for the odd collection of proposed West African cognates in the big Websters can be summed up as “the guy who did African etymologies back in the ’20s had those words in a shoebox.” The important thing is that the guesses be plausible based on history and geography, and yours certainly are — it makes all the sense in the world that a Yoruba word would come from Hausa, and of course Hausa is heavily larded with Arabic borrowings. And there’s that weird tradition of descent from the Arabic tribe of Qahtan (قحطان)… Interesting stuff.
    And you really will have to write a book one of these days.

  7. Many aliens in bad science fiction also speak a variant of Historical Novelese for some reason, with bits of Meaningless Technicalese thrown in (think the Klingons from Star Trek). And robots and androids seem to have a nearly universal inability to use contractions. I guess designing and implementing a sentient artificial intelligence is child’s play compared to teaching it how to say “can’t”.

  8. It’s always a pleasure to empty the contents of my shoebox here.
    I’m afraid, though, that I wrote a bit of confused nonsense in my tangent above.
    Though “yarabi” in Yoruba is indeed something like “fate” or “destiny,” its Mande cognate (?) “diaraby” means “my love” or “lover.” This latter word is, as I said, quite common in Malian music.
    But the word that stretches from West Africa through the Middle East all the way to India is another one: “duniya.” (It’s also common in Malian music and, like, “diaraby” it is employed as a filler; hence my confusion). And “duniya” does mean “world” in the Manding languages. For someone with the right lexicographic aids (not me) its diffusion should be traceable.
    Sorry about the lies!

  9. Lies, truth, it’s all good. As for dun(i)ya, I’m afraid it’s simply the Arabic word for ‘world,’ widespread in languages that have been influenced by Islam. No mystery there.

  10. “The term Yoruba is sometimes said to have been derived from a foreign nickname, meaning cunning, given to the subjects of the Alafin of Oyo by the Fulani and Hausa. The Hausa word for the Yoruba language is Yarbanci. Yoruba has been commonly applied to a large group, united more by language than by culture, whose members speak of themselves as Oyo, Egba, Ijebu, Ife, Ilesha and the other names of the various tribes” Daryll Forde, The Yoruba-speaking Peoples of South-Western Nigeria 1951 pg. 1.
    Apparently already in the Polyglotta Africana (1854 — see pg. 452 sidebar in Dalby), Koelle objected to Yoruba being used for Aku. But that was what most of the CMS used. (No specific reference; a trip to an accommodating library is needed.)

  11. I found this website:
    http://www.smi.uib.no/sa/14/140gunbiyi.pdf which says:
    “the origin of the name Yoruba has been traced to Arabic writers such as Ahmad Baba d. 1627 … and Muhammad Bello d. 1837 … both of whom were reportedly among the earliest to name this people “yarba” or “yaruba” or “yariba” at a time when they were stil referring to themselves by their various ethnic identities.”

  12. verstegan says:

    I’m curious to know what aspects of the plot struck you as ‘absurd’? I’m usually very sensitive to anachronism in historical fiction or drama, but I don’t remember any point in The Winter Queen where I thought ‘this is impossible!’ I thought it had the right degree of plausibility.
    I should declare an interest here, as I read the novel in draft, with the specific task of picking up historical inaccuracies. (I hope I didn’t miss anything obvious ..) However, I agree with you about the dialogue — definitely the weakest part of the novel, particularly towards the end, where the events of the English Civil War are rather clunkily introduced into the plot.

  13. Ah well, we evidently have different ideas of what was likely to happen in 17th-century Holland. I don’t want to give too much of the plot away for potential readers, but let’s just say I can buy a number of the elements as separate possibilities, but piled on top of each other they collectively strike me as absurd. Let’s say I write a novel about an alien landing in Georgetown. OK, you’ll buy that as a premise. I have the alien run into Condoleeza Rice at a picnic. Eh, could happen. Now I have the two embark on a passionate secret affair… no, that’s a bridge too far. For me, anyway.

  14. After the Fulani Jihad and the fall of the empire of the city state of Oyo in 1818, there was a huge flight of refugees from the savannah regions of western Nigeria southward. Oyo, which had previously been the strongest Empire between Ghana and Cameroun, demanded tribute from neighboring vassal Kingdoms in items of western manufacture (guns, beads, cloth) which were mainly obtained by selling slaves to western traders. When Oyo fell, those vassals – particularly the Gbe speaking Fon of Dahomey – went to town selling Oyo refugees to the Portuguese. Those refugees were the key populations that founded the town of Abeokuta (which successfully turned back the Fulani/Hausa invasions) and swelled the small coastal town of Eko into the sprawling monster we now know as Lagos (which comes from the Yoruba “Ni Eko,” where elided ‘ni’ becomes ‘l’) Christianity was adopted by many Yoruba at this time, and led to the rapid and widespread adoption of Yoruba as a written language, spreading the use of the term “Yoruba” to generically refer to the language of Oyo as the central “literary” dialect.
    It was around that time (1815-1860) that people began referring to themselves generically as “Yoruba” whereas previously they would have reffered to themselves by the name of their kingdoms, such as Oyo, Ijebu, Ondo, Ife, etc. Brazilian and Spanish slaveships were intercepted by the British Navy, and their cargo of slaves were set ashore in Sierra Leone. The Yoruba speakers there referred to themselves as “Aku” which comes from the basic Yoruba greeting “E ku se?” (How’s it going?)
    Yorubas in the new world generally referred to themselves by their origin such as “Nagos” in Brazil and Haiti (Anago western Yoruba from Dahomey) and Ilesha (Ijesa) in Brazil, Ketu in Jamaica. In Cuba the term “Lucumi” derives from the Youruba for “my friend” “Oluko mi.”
    The British Navy – ever resourceful – did not offer the freed slaves in Sierra Leone passage back to Nigeria, but signed up thousands on twenty year indenturments to go to Trinidad, Guyana, and other Caribean colinies as labor, a practice that continued into the 1860s. Many of the communities which continued speaking Yoruba into the twentieth century descended from these indentured laborers, who already were referring to themsleves as “Yarriba” in Trinidad and Guyana.

  15. Good lord, is there any part of the world you can’t discourse in detail about? Thanks very much for that history, almost all of which was new to me (I was aware of the Fulani Jihad). And I just took for granted that Lagos was Portuguese for ‘lakes, lagoons,’ as is usually said. I’m certainly glad I asked.

  16. verstegan says:

    What you may not have realised, languagehat, is that The Winter Queen is heavily indebted to Aphra Behn’s novel Oronooko, or the Royal Slave. In other words, it takes its bearings from seventeenth-century fiction, not from seventeenth-century fact.
    You compare it to Mary Renault, but the two are as different as chalk and cheese. Renault’s novels are history clothed in fiction; Stevenson’s novels are fiction clothed in history. The test of The Winter Queen is whether the historical clothing is sufficiently plausible to make the reader accept the fiction at the heart of the plot — and here, I guess, we’ll just have to agree to disagree. I think it passes the ‘sufficient plausibility’ test; you obviously don’t.

  17. verstegan says:

    (In the light of the discussion above, it’s also worth adding that as far as I can see, the main character in the novel never uses the word ‘Yoruba’, but describes himself as ‘of Africa’ or ‘of Oyo’ — which I think is a good example of the author’s scrupulous attention to detail.)

  18. You might want to check out a fascinating article that addresses the origins of a common identity as “Yoruba” in the context of the Atlantic slave trade and the role that Orisha religion had in forging a Yoruba identity. http://assr.revues.org/document2474.html (note: it is a downloadable .pdf file.)
    I manage to converse in Yoruba quite a lot, even these days in Budapest with several Nigerian friends. You would be amazed at the places I have found Yoruba speakers by accident: small Romanian towns, Bulgarian villages, Istanbul.

  19. Oh yes, we’re everywhere.
    Thanks for the information zaelic. It’s wonderful to see other people engaged with this material. May I ask: what’s the source for the historical material in your earlier comment?Is this all in Johnson?
    As for Lagos being a contraction of “ni Eko,” that’s news to me. I (and most Nigerians) believe that “Lagos” is directly from the Portuguese. There is a Portuguese city of that name and, as you probably know, the Nigerian city is inundated by lagoons and creeks. Permit me to invoke Occam’s shaving equipment.
    In Cuba the term “Lucumi” derives from the Youruba for “my friend” “Oluko mi.”
    It’s “Oluku mi,” and it means my relative. Still in common use.
    Thanks also, for bringing to attention again the horror of Yorubas selling Yorubas into slavery. There’s a book waiting to be written on the subject, and on the nineteenth-century Yoruba wars in general.

  20. What you may not have realised, languagehat, is that The Winter Queen is heavily indebted to Aphra Behn’s novel Oronooko, or the Royal Slave. In other words, it takes its bearings from seventeenth-century fiction, not from seventeenth-century fact.
    You’re right, I didn’t realize that, and I’ll cut it more slack accordingly. Still don’t like the prose, though.

  21. The etymology of Lagos from “L’Eko” is what I was taught when I was studying Yoruba at Boston University African Studies Center around 1980. My teachers were Jacob Kehinde Olupona, who was the son of the Anglican Bishop of Ondo, and Wande Abimbola, a babalawo whose books are the best source for Ifa studies in the English language (he now teaches at BU as well.)
    Bruce Chatwin’s stab at a historical novel, The Viceroy of Ouidah, focuses on the relationship of the Brazilian slaver Francisco Manoel de Silva and the future king of Dahomey, Glezo, rather than on the Yoruba in particular. But it still is a good read, much better than the Werner Herzog film based on the book, “Cobra Verde” (should have been ‘Cobra Merde…’) which was the subject of a rollicking good Chatwin short essay.
    Mo nilati lo se sise mi, ore won mi, o daabo…..

  22. Ogbeni zaelic, e ku ise o.
    How peculiar. I have the same Chatwin book on my nightstand at the moment. It’s by no means his best known.
    Abimbola is a legend. You studied with the best. Good for you.

  23. Discussions like this make keeping this blog up a pleasure. And I’ll have to read that Chatwin book.

  24. Nobody has yet commented on my earlier post, taken from a Bergen University language site, which traces the name back to the seventeenth century.
    The link may be found by going up two levels and clicking on the SA link, then taking it from there. There are also a lot of articles on African languages that should appeal to this forum.

  25. Eliza: Sorry, your link didn’t work for me, but now that you’ve prodded me I worked a little harder and found the correct one (pdf, HTML cache). Here’s a fuller version of what Eliza quoted above:
    A point of interest that is worth mentioning here is that the origin of the name ‘Yoruba’ has been traced to Arabic writers such as Ahmad Bābā (d. 1627) in his Mi’rāj al-su’ūd and Muhammad Bello (d. 1837) in his Infāq al-maysūr, both of whom were reportedly among the earliest to name this people ‘yarba’ or ‘yaruba’ or ‘yariba’ (y-r-b) at a time when they were still referring to themselves by their diverse ethnic identities. The earliest references to them by the British was as akus or eyeo.

  26. Chester Graham says:

    Kerim Friedman:
    >a name given to them by another group
    Cf “Chechen”, “Chechenya”.

  27. Osomaalo says:

    I came across this review quite by accident, so I hope you won’t mind my intrusion and a brief contribution. I believe the Ahmed Baba reference is the earliest to use the term “Yoruba” in print, but I have not heard any etymological comment on the possibility of its derivation from the Yagba and Yauri, two of the most northernmost groups that fall under the Yoruba ethnic identity. Baba’s treatise referred to groups that Muslims were permitted to raid for enslavement in West Africa, and these northernmost groups would have been closest to Hausa and/or Fulani dealers. The ethnonym may have then been expanded to cover all speakers of a similiar language. It’s a private theory I’ve been nursing for some time, so I thought I’d share it in this fairly anonymous venue.
    With regard to Zaelic’s well-written summary of 19th century Yoruba history, Eko is not actually a Yoruba word. It is a word from the neighboring Edo language, meaning ‘war camp’. That mighty metropolis was just another fishing community on the Guinea coast when Benin’s soldiers added it to their expanding empire. The influx of savannah-dwelling Yoruba that Zaelic mentioned did swell the population, but the precolonial name is derived from that Edo word and not Yoruba. I would say that this puts the “Lagos” etymology at some risk too, especially since “Eko” and “Kuramo” are indisputably precolonial, while “Lagos” is associated with European (and specifically Portuguese) contact and usage.
    One other small quibble–Abeokuta was not responsible for defeating the Hausa-Fulani/Muslim-Yoruba jihadists; that work fell to the nascent Ibadan empire, who stopped the jihadist advance at Osogbo.

  28. I hope you won’t mind my intrusion and a brief contribution
    Not at all! There’s no such thing as “intrusion” here; all are welcome, and those who come bearing knowledge especially so. I’m grateful for your additions to the information here, and I’m sure zaelic will enjoy them as well. I’m glad I live in an age when I can get responses from all over the world and learn things I wouldn’t have discovered otherwise.

  29. Hat-2006: I don’t actually find your fantasia above as unrealistic as you do. Rice has never married or been in a long-term relationship that is publicly known, she is a political scientist by training (though an anthropologist might have been better), and as Secretary of State she has had plenty of intimate (perhaps not anatomical) relationships with aliens. It takes chutzpah to write fiction about living persons, but this world has no shortage of that kind of chutzpah.

  30. marie-lucie says:

    learning Lucumi
    I don’t remember reading this post when it first appeared, but by coincidence it turned out to have useful information for me.

    I know a woman from Halifax who is married to a Cuban immigrant whose family in Cuba includes practitioners of santeria. She seems to have converted to the religion some years ago and prays to Orisha. This couple has now moved West, and she sent messages saying she has been told she has to learn Lucumi in order to really pray, although it seems to me that that means reciting existing prayers correctly. I had never heard of the language, but after reading this post and comments I looked up some sites on Wikipedia. If she was still around here I would try to help her, but she is too far for one on one tutoring, and by her own admission she finds it very hard to learn other languages. Her Spanish is minimal even though she has been to Cuba a number of times and her husband’s relatives sometimes visit, and she also has a longstanding reading problem. Needless to say she has no background in linguistics and would not be able to make sense of a linguistic description.

    I thought of trying to put her in touch with a linguistics department in the city where she is, as perhaps a student might be interested in her case. Does anyone have any suggestions, for me as well as for her?

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