Another Laudator Temporis Acti post:

I was surprised to find no entry for ambubaia in Michiel de Vaan, Etymological Dictionary of Latin and the Other Italic Languages (Leiden: Brill, 2008), but then I read the disclaimer on p. 1:

This approach implies the exclusion of those Latin words which are certainly or probably loanwords from known, non-Italic languages, such as Celtic, Etruscan, Germanic, Greek, and Semitic.

He then quotes J.N. Adams, “Words for Prostitute in Latin” (Rheinisches Museum für Philologie 126.3/4 [1983]):

I mention finally ambubaia, which is sometimes ascribed the sense ‘prostitute’. The word is Syrian (cf. abbub, ‘flute’), and it must have denoted a Syrian flute girl. This is undoubtedly the sense at Hor. Sat. 1.2.1 (‘ambubaiarum collegia, pharmacopolae, / mendici, mimae, balatrones, hoc genus omne / maestum ac sollicitum est cantoris morte Tigelli’), and it is consistent with the context at Suet. Nero 27.2 (‘cenitabatque nonnunquam et in publico, naumachia praeclusa uel Martio campo uel circo maximo, inter scortorum totius urbis et ambubaiarum ministeria’). Ambubaia is a term of abuse at Petron. 74.13, but the context is not sexual (‘ambubaia non meminit se de machina? in illam sustuli, hominem inter homines feci’); Trimalchio is suggesting that his wife has forgotten her lowly origins, and hence the sense ‘flute girl’ would be appropriate. The only slight evidence for the meaning ‘prostitute’ comes from the first clause of Porph. Hor. Sat. 1.2.1 (‘ambubaiae . . . sunt mulieres uagae et uiles, quibus nomen hoc causa uanorum et ebrietate balbutientium uerborum uidetur esse inditum. nonnulli tamen ambubaias tibicines Syra lingua putant dici’), but a sexual implication would appear to be ruled out by the next clause. Moreover the second sentence suggests that Porphyrio did not know the word from current usage, and was merely speculating about its meaning. I conclude that there is no evidence that the word meant ‘whore’, either at the time of Horace or of Porphyrio.

(For footnotes, see the link.) Gilleland says: “If you were to read Horace, Satire 1.2 (Ambubaiarum collegia, pharmacopolae), in Arthur Palmer’s school edition (1883; rpt. London: Macmillan, 1968), pp. 9-10, you might think that it’s the shortest of Horace’s Satires. That’s because Palmer omits lines 25-134 as ‘scarcely profitable reading’ (p. 132).”

A striking word, and even more striking is that, according to Gaffiot and Georges, there’s another ambubaia, meaning ‘chicory‘!


  1. According to Brown Driver Briggs, the Aramaic term for flute
    אַּבוּבָא or ‘abuwbo is related to an Aramaic term for reed (think panpipes?) and is also cognate with Biblical Heb. נבוב or navuv (v and b in Heb are indicated by the same letter.), meaning hollow, as in Job 11:12, which speaks of אִ ישׁ נָ בוּב, an empty or hollow man.

    A far cry from flute girls?

  2. The KJV has “For vain man would be wise, though man be born like a wild ass’s colt” for that verse, where “though” makes it unintelligible.

    The “New KJV” has “For an empty-headed man will be wise, When a wild donkey’s colt is born a man”, which at least makes sense.

    So this is about ignorant flute girls, I guess.

  3. Unless ancient Syrians were a lot more prudish than any other humans before or since, I wouldn’t be so hasty to rule out double-entendres surrounding anything having to do with, er, flautistry.

  4. Sadly I suppose I can expect no connection to Bubo bubo the Eurasian eagle-owl?

  5. David Eddyshaw says

    J N Adams’ indispensable The Latin Sexual Vocabulary (which doesn’t pretend to be exhaustive but is pretty comprehensive) perhaps rather surprisingly records nothing relating to flautistry at all.

  6. I presume the Aramaic word is the source of Arabic أُنْبُوب ‘unbūb “pipe”…

  7. David Marjanović says

    A far cry from flute girls?

    Why? Flutes are hollow.


    So named for making [u], I’m afraid. Same in German: Uhu.

  8. Chicory plants have hollow stems. Perhaps simple flutes can be made of large enough chicories?

  9. Trond Engen says

    Yes, surely, with two so singular words being homonyms, the default assumption should be that they are one and the same — or at least parallel derivations from the same *ambub(a). Here we even have a plausible semantic connection.

    Also, it looks as though it might have come to Latin through some other language. Greek?

  10. As for the meaning “chicory” of Latin ambubaia, Ernout and Meillet suggest the following in their etymological dictionary of Latin:

    Ainsi appelée sans doute par mauvais jeu de mots : intubus, intibus rapproché de tībia et par là de ambūbāia.

    “Doubtless so called through a bad play on words: intubus, intibus [chicory] likened to tībia [aulos] and from there to ambūbāia.”

    As for the phonetic shape of the Latin word, the usual form of the word for “pipe, reed, ‘flute’ (Greek aulos, Latin tibia)” in most older varieties of Aramaic is absolute ˀbwb, emphatic ˀbwbˀ (to be read ˀabbūḇ, ˀabbūḇā, with spirantized ). The variant ˀmbwb with -m-is attested in Christian Palestinian Aramaic, but scantily. However, variation between voiced geminate stops (‑DD‑) and clusters of nasal and oral stop (‑ND‑) among Aramaic varieties is well-known: for a nice example, consider the name of the Mandaeans, from Mandaic manda, “knowledge, intelligence”, and also Biblical Aramaic מַנְדְּעָא mandˁā, beside Syriac ܡܕܥܐ maddˁā (as well as Hebrew מַדָּע maddāˁ, with similar phonology). The Latin ambubaia appears to reflect a nisba (adjective of relation or pertinence) *ˀambūbāy‑ “(the one) of the pipes” derived from ˀabbūḇ. More precisely, it looks like the feminine singular absolute *ˀambūbāyā.

  11. Fascinating, thanks!

  12. AniOhevYayin says

    Porphyrio’s (2nd century Latin grammarian) Horace commentary indicates,as Adams noted, that he didn’t really know–nonnulli…syra lingua putant dici, “some think that flute girls are called ambubaia in the Syrian language.” It’s tempting to think that the mem in ambubaia reflects a western Aramaic spelling, since the word without a mem is in the eastern Aramaic dialects of Syriac and Jewish Babylonian Aramaic; however, Mandaic retains the mem as well.

  13. I don’t know if this helps, but in Burton’s “Anatomy of Melancholy” (part 3, sec. 2, memb. 1, subs. 2), he refers to “Ambubaias,” which his editors define in a bracket as “Dancing-Girls” (Dell and Jordan-Smith ed.,1927).

  14. Interesting, thanks!

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