In a discussion of French chapeau ‘hat’ that developed in the meandering course of this thread, our caprine constituent AJP asked “m-l, is there a connection between chapeau and chapel (its current English meaning) based on physical resemblance?” And the learned marie-lucie replied:

AJP, an interesting question! I had to go check in the Trésor de la langue française informatisé … Yes, there is a connection, but it is rather roundabout and has nothing to do with the physical appearance.
In French chapeau (Latin cappellus) and chapelle (Latin cappella) are related to the old word chape which originally meant a kind of cape (Latin cappa), a wraparound garment. There is a well-known story about Saint Martin (the most popular saint in France), who was a Roman officer, cutting his cape in half with his sword and giving one half to a beggar. His own half (or what passed for it) became a relic preserved in a small addition to the palace of Charlemagne, which was named cappella from the cappa that was preserved in it (in French, Charlemagne’s capital Aachen is called Aix-la-Chapelle for this reason). Later the word was applied to such additions to churches (often recesses off the nave), or to small churches dependent on larger ones or built for private use (ie not parish churches).

You would think that, as a noted hat person, I would have known that, but I didn’t. For comparison, here’s the OED’s etymology:

ME. chapele, a. OF. chapele (in ONF. capele, Pr. capella, It. cappella):—late L. cappella, orig. little cloak or cape, dim. of cappa, cloak, cape, cope (see CAP). From the cappella or cloak of St. Martin, preserved by the Frankish kings as a sacred relic, which was borne before them in battle, and used to give sanctity to oaths, the name was applied to the sanctuary in which this was preserved under the care of its cappellani or ‘chaplains’, and thence generally to a sanctuary containing holy relics, attached to a palace, etc., and so to any private sanctuary or holy place, and finally to any apartment or building for orisons or worship, not being a church, the earlier name for which was oratorium, ORATORY.

Our m-l definitely wins for both concision and narrative oomph.
(Somehow, “Goin’ to the oratory and we’re… gonna get ma-a-a-ried” doesn’t have the same ring.)


  1. Not to mention the comedian Dave Oratoire.

  2. How fun! Etymological relics are as interesting as biological ones.

  3. Interesting. The hat derivation still seems a little fuzzy, though. I suppose there was nothing to be done with half a cape but to wear it on your head.

  4. Siganus Sutor says

    In Wonderland le chapelier fou is Alice’s friend.
    Un chapelier, whether a mad hatter or not, doesn’t officiate in une chapelle but in une chapellerie.
    Ultimately all this, le couvre-chef* (hat) and the rest, might go back to the head, caput in Latin.
    * chef = head

  5. And couvre-chef gives English kerchief.

  6. dearieme says

    Didn’t “chapeau” once carry the slang meaning of a condom? So we believed at school, anyway.

  7. That’s capote, derived from capot, cape, chape and ultimately cappa. It does sort of resemble a capacious bathing cap, doesn’t it ?

  8. Here’s a book I wish I had: the OED cites

    1708 (title) Almonds for parrots … with a word or two in praise of condons

  9. dearieme, I didn’t mean to imply that chapeau never had that meaning. What do I know about such things ? I should have written “are you thinking of capote ?”.

  10. dearieme says

    The school joke went:
    Englishman enters shop: “Un chapeau noir, svp.”
    Shopkeeper “Pourquoi, monsieur?”
    E: “Ma femme est morte.”
    S: “Quelle delicatesse, les Anglais.”

  11. Ha!

  12. But I regret to report that neither of my dictionaries of French slang includes such a meaning for chapeau. So I think you and your schoolmates were thinking of capote.
    From the Dictionary of Modern Colloquial French, s.v. chapeau: “Etre envoyé au chapeau de paille: To be deported to a penal colony. (The expression died with the last convict on Devil’s Island.)”

  13. Truman Capote’s real name was Truman Streckfus Persons.

  14. Or I should say, original name. His stepfather was indeed named Condom, I mean Capote.

  15. Thank you very much, Language and m-l.
    The reason I asked was because if there were a connection, a new paper could be written on the well-known likeness between Le Corbusier’s chapel at Ronchamp and any number of different hats, including these two examples drawn by Charles Jencks in the ‘seventies.

  16. narrowmargin says

    Does the musical style “a cappella” have anything to do with cappellus, cappella, chapeau, etc.?

  17. What an odd name Streckfuß is: “stretch-foot”. Whether the foot is stretched in itself (the opposite of the Chinese practice), or stretched out as at the end of the leg, who knows ? Dragging the net, I found several curious Streckfuß items, but nothing resembling an Ursache (fundamental thing = cause).
    First, Streckfus was Capote’s given middle name, but entretemps a stepfather replaced that by Garcia. The American name seems to have enjoyed some popularity in the early 1900s, perhaps in honor of Captain John Streckfus:

    The famous riverboat J.S. was named after Captain John Streckfus, the man most responsible for developing the connection between dance music and riverboats on the Mississippi. Streckfus began his Acme Packet Company in Rock Island, Illinois, in 1884, concentrating on the transport of freight and passengers until the impact of railroads redirected the company’s focus around the turn of the century.

    There’s more in a review of the book Jazz on the River.. HERE is a picture of him (search in the page for “Capt Joe Streckfus”)
    There have been a few Streckfuß Germans. There is a Buchen-Streckfuß (beech) moth of the family Lymantriidae, or “tussock moths”. Lymantria means “defiler”, sez there.

  18. slavicpolymath says

    @narrowmargin: in a word, yes. Chapel-style singing.

  19. Correction: Capt Joe Streckfus was a descendant of John Streckfus.

  20. According to the Allgemeine Encyklopädie der gesammten Land- und Hauswirthschaft der Deutschen (1829), Streckfuß is the name of a kind of caterpillar (aka “schamhafter Nachtschmetterling” and “Wallnußspinner”).

  21. Googling “captain + joe + john + streckfus” will get you too many interesting pages to link here, including a family photo and testimony from Louis Armstrong.
    Jazz started in New Orleans but in its development stretched as far as the Mississippi-Missouri system reached — the Dakotas, Minnesota, Wisconsin, Iowa, etc.

  22. This one is for AJP Blank.

  23. I mean this one.

  24. Siganus "Kapellmeister" Sutor says

    Dearieme: Didn’t “chapeau” once carry the slang meaning of a condom?
    I have never heard anything like that, but it’s possible that some people use it this way. One can also eat his hat (“manger son chapeau), i.e. accept what happened, however unpleasant. And “porter le chapeau” means being held responsible for something (bad) that happened.
    Narrowmargin: Does the musical style “a cappella” have anything to do with cappellus, cappella, chapeau, etc.?
    It is said to come from cappa, cappae, “terme bas latin pour désigner une chape” —
    We would therefore be back to Marie-Lucie’s “kind of cape, a wraparound garment”.

  25. Thank you, John; you obviously remember my sleazy background in the cruise business. I love that phrase “as modern as a streamlined airplane and as modernistic as a cocktail lounge”.

  26. Procrustes was a sort of Streckfuss.
    Online Etym. Dict. mentions cap=condom.

  27. dearieme says

    Another source of endless fun in French lessons was getting the teacher to say Tour Eiffel.

  28. Capote, however, is better known to millions of American schoolchildren as Charles Baker, or Dill, Harris — though they don’t know that they know him.

  29. marie-lucie says

    A little late, but thank you, LH, it is not often that I receive praise for having “oomph”.
    The word la capote first brings to my mind the adjustable top of an old-fashioned or fancy baby carriage, or of a convertible, or (earlier in my life) of some horse-drawn carriages (more common at the time than cars or trucks in the rural area where I lived as a child). For a condom the phrase is (or was) capote anglaise – the French and English had a way of attributing new or unmentionable things to the “hereditary enemy”. A related word is le capot, the “hood” of a car in North America.
    For other cap- words related to a covering, especially of the head, there is also la capuche ‘hood (of a coat, etc)’ and le capuchon, which could be a hood too but also the kind of waterproof hooded cape that children wore on rainy days when I was in elementary school. These were coated with rubber inside, making them waterproof but also not breathable, so they soon became uncomfortable, and their thickness prevented too much movement.
    These words beginning with cap- could be ultimately from Italian (the true French words have chap-). The monks known as Capucins (English Capuchins) owe their name to their peculiarly hooded robes, the colour of which is recalled in the capuccino you get at Starbucks, etc. The flower called in French la capucine (a much nicer word than “nasturtium”) has a kind of appendage also recalling the Capucin hood.
    a cappella: this refers to choral singing without supporting instruments, probably because the chapelles were too small and poor to contain or afford instrumentists as well as singers. (Later royal chapelles could be quite big, and certainly well-funded, but “a cappella”, like “Kapellmeister”, has survived even though the source is forgotten).
    Une chape (the true French – as opposed to Spanish or Italian) derivation from cappa is a kind of cape worn by Catholic priests while officiating, and it is also a protective layer or “mantle” or other type of containment, in some technical contexts that I am not too familiar with but Siganus and AJP probably know.
    Siganus, I think that manger son chapeau is not an old French expression but a translation from English. I don’t know porter le chapeau, but then I don’t know slang very well, especially recent slang.
    dearieme, what was so funny about the teacher saying Tour Eiffel?

  30. dearieme, what was so funny about the teacher saying Tour Eiffel?
    I’m wondering, too; I keep muttering it to myself and not getting it.

  31. Very nice info on chapels, capucins, etc. Thanks, Marie-Lucie.
    One note on a cappella: the reason this style was associated with chapels was probably not because they were small and poor; on the contrary, it was the various royal, imperial, and papal chapels that had the best choirs. Sometimes the “chapel” could even denote the choir itself, as in the case of the Spanish Kings’ capilla flamenca and capilla española, inherited respectively from their Hapsburg and Spanish lines.
    Instruments may have been used on occasion; they just had no written independent parts.

  32. Siganus Sutor says

    and it [chape] is also a protective layer or “mantle” or other type of containment, in some technical contexts that I am not too familiar with but Siganus and AJP probably know
    In the construction industry une chape can be a layer of mortar cast on the floor. This is what is called a screed in English.

  33. screed
    By golly, I finally learn what Estrich is called in English. It is derived from a Middle Latin word for plaster, and ultimately from Greek ~ostrakon~ (potsherd, clay tablet), whence also “ostracize”.

    [mhd. est(e)rich, ahd. esterih, astrih < mlat. astracum, astricum = Pflaster < griech. óstrakon= Scherbe, irdenes Täfelchen]

    So we have Capote’s screeds cast before caterpillars ostracized for their urticating hairs (hurticating ‘airs ?). <* spooky music *>

  34. marie-lucie says

    Alan Shaw, thank you for the correction on “a cappella”. So is the idea that the singers in the chapels were so good (“the voices of angels”) that they had no need of instruments?

  35. Marie-Lucie,
    Yes, and not only the chapel singers: in general the whole idea of church music up to about 1600 was that it needed only the human voice. In Eastern Orthodoxy this hardened into an actual prohibition against instruments in church; in the West instruments were sometimes used (organs, for instance) but still not considered essential to the music.
    The reason the chapels had the best singers, I would guess, is that they were places of semi-private devotion for important people (kings, popes, archbishops) who could afford to keep their own permanent choirs.
    The big change came at St. Mark’s in Venice when Gabrieli and others starting writing separate instrumental parts for their big polychoral pieces, which were performed in the main space of the cathedral with its multiple choir lofts. I suspect it would have been not too long after that people began referring to the “old” style as “a cappella” in contrast to the new “concertato” style.

  36. Siganus Sutor says

    KCinDC: couvre-chef gives English kerchief
    Hey, I didn’t know that! Therefore, a handkerchief could be some sort of manual hat (or at least a manual head covering). The author of the Monkey’s Armpit might like this.

  37. I think I’ve reproduced the following pieces of handkerchief advice compiled in New Zealand once before on this blog, but they are so meet as to bear repeating:

    By the fifteenth century the idea of a handkerchief appears to have been incipient. From Ein spruch der ze tische Kert:
    It is unseemly to blow your nose into the tablecloth

    From De civilitate morum puerilium, by Erasmus, Chapter 1:
    To blow your nose on your hat or clothing is rustic, and to do so with the arm or elbow befits a tradesman; nor is it much more polite to use the hand, if you immediately smear the snot on your garment. It is proper to wipe the nostrils with a handkerchief, and to do this while turning away if more honourable people are present.

    If anything falls to the ground when blowing the nose with two fingers, it should immediately be trodden away.

    From Galateo, by Della Casa, 1558:
    Nor is it seemly, after wiping your nose, to spread out your handkerchief and peer into it as if pearls and rubies might have fallen out of your head.

  38. dearieme says

    “dearieme, what was so funny about the teacher saying Tour Eiffel?”
    Toor FL, you see. Giggle, squirm, smirk. Perhaps the abbreviation FL was familiar only in Britain in the 50s, for what you assure me wasn’t a chapeau.

  39. I have no idea what FL might mean, so I’m guessing it’s a UK thing.

  40. French letter. Condom.

  41. marie-lucie says

    Alan Shaw, thank you for the extra information on a cappella.
    Siganus: a kerchief is not just any couvre-chef (indeed that word does not apply to it) but a square piece of cloth for covering the head, big enough to be tied in the back or under the chin. A handkerchief is a similarly square piece of cloth but smaller, not put on one’s head but (formerly) carried in one’s hand.
    Noetica, why is the euphemism “letter”?

  42. I’ve seen explanations both that gentlemen got their condoms by post from France and that letter means something that hinders. The last would imply that the term is old, since that sense is obsolete: the last OED quotation is from 1616. The OED traces French letter back to the mid-19th Century, but doesn’t offer any explanation for the compound. (They doubt the existence of Dr. or Col. Condom, too.)
    I’ve read of a eggcorn in Indian, Pakistani and ethnic Indian South African English, that FL stands for French leather. But I have no idea how widespread that really is.

  43. Inconclusive thread.

  44. I’ve seen explanations … that letter means something that hinders. The last would imply that the term is old, since that sense is obsolete: the last OED quotation is from 1616.
    MMcM, not quite obsolete as regards “let”, though perhaps “letter” is. The very old phrase “without let or hindrance” was still current in legal texts about 40 years ago in the US. Could it be that “letter” was a surreptitious euphephism calqued on the legal “let” by educated men ?

  45. I see that the “river” commenter in the WordReference thread says essentially the same thing as I did, and additionally cites “let ball” in tennis.

  46. dearieme says

    I’m sure we all agree that we must carefully distinguish schoolboy sniggeringly smutty humour – as in FL – from their healthily mucky humour, as in referring to a golfer’s “plus fours” as “shit keppers”.

  47. Siganus Sutor says

    MMcM: FL stands for French leather
    ► “MME DE SAINT-ANGE : Quelques femmes s’introduisent des éponges dans l’intérieur du vagin, qui, recevant le sperme, l’empêchent de s’élancer dans le vase qui le propagerait ; d’autres obligent leurs fouteurs de se servir d’un petit sac de peau de Venise, vulgairement nommé condom, dans lequel la semence coule, sans risquer d’atteindre le but”. (Marquis de Sade, La Philosophie dans le boudoir, 1795.)
    Here’s your leather — if le divin marquis knows what he is talking about.
    He might be right though, since Procris, the mistress of king Minos, is said to have invented the condom by using a goat’s bladder.
    (Incidentally, I suppose everyone knows that in the south of France (Gers) there is a town called Condom. Whats is even funnier is that the river flowing through Condom is called “la Baïse”, baise meaning “sex, lovemaking, bonking” in French French.)

  48. Siganus Sutor says

    I’ve seen explanations … that letter means something that hinders
    It might be easier to imagine that a letter is something that one inserts into a slot (letter box).
    a kerchief is not just any couvre-chef (indeed that word does not apply to it) but a square piece of cloth for covering the head
    I understand that, Marie-Lucie (this is what is also called a bandana), but, naughty me, I couldn’t resist making some fun with the hand-kerchief. (Qui se sent morveux se mouche.)

  49. marie-lucie says

    the river flowing through Condom is called “la Baïse”
    It is very important to notice the tréma (umlaut sign) on the i: the name of the river has two syllables, Ba-ise, unlike the word Siganus is referring to.

  50. dearieme says

    The French rugby side fielded a player named Condom a few years ago – it was boyishly amusing to hear the commentators cope with it. At least no-one referred to him as “Letter”.

  51. dearieme says

    By the way, do we now have a consensus that my schoolboy joke must have been simplified in my memory and was presumably originally:-
    A just widowed Englishman enters a shop to buy a hat for mourning and, mispronouncing slightly, is taken to be asking for “un capote noir, svp.”
    Shopkeeper: “Pourquoi, monsieur?”
    E: “Ma femme est morte.”
    S: “Ah les Anglais, quelle delicatesse.”
    That would also be consistent with the only teasing of an English pupil for his accent that I heard at school – we all found his assault on French chortleworthy.

  52. Dearie, in this biography I’ve been reading, it says that Hugh Trevor-Roper’s essay mocking the Scots was revenge for his treatment as an English boy at a Scottish prep school. He had a long memory for paybacks.

  53. Zythophile says

    I have a friend called Martin Cloake: when I pointed out to him how aptly his forename fitted with his surname, he was surprised, since he had never heard the tale of St Martin of Tours and the beggar.
    Still, my mother had a friend whose maiden name was Anne Hathaway, whose parents had never heard of Shakespeare’s wife …

  54. The case of Martin Cloake is not exactly parallel to that of Mr. Smoketoomuch, but in both cases it is remarkable that they went for years before anyone pointed out the funny thing.

  55. We’re approaching Johnny Fuckerfaster territory.

  56. CLOAC is the Combined Logistics Officer Advanced Course, as in: “I’ve been selected to spend three months in CLOAC”.

  57. dearieme says

    To start a pompous pronouncement with “OCTU-ALLY,…..” was a mildly amusing joke in my youth.
    OCTU = Officer Cadet Training Unit.

  58. … bandana …
    Ha! I immediately thought of coining banana bandana for the prophylactic sheath, but a check of the web proves that I am too late. See it at this exhilarating page, along with hundreds of other “terms for the derm”. Fiveskin must rank as a brilliance of the first order; but I note the absence of franger, which was common in the schoolyard when I was little (alas, too many golden years ago).

  59. The list isn’t in alphabetical order.

  60. “French Letter” is now a trade name for a brand of “fair trade” condoms, although their idea of what constitutes fair trade seems a bit hazy. For ovo-lacto vegetarians, there is also a link for vegetarian condoms made with cocoa powder instead of milk-derived casein. This sentence confused me though: “By choosing a fairtrade condom brand (this is the only one I’m aware of, and a google search doesn’t throw up any others), you can be sure that your Johnnies will benefit workers on rubber plantations, whose wages and wellbeing will be protected under the scheme.” Turns out Johnnies is a Scottish term for condom.
    The Arabic at Noetica’s link is all wrong; it seems to be a definition. I learned two words for condom, which I can’t remember anymore. One is a polite word meaning something like “protection”, and the other is the word they really use.

  61. And what is the word they really use?

  62. mollymooly says

    “Johnny”, short for “rubber johnny”, is well-known in These Islands outside Scotland. It has perhaps a dated schoolboy quality. There is a Chris Cunningham video with the name.

  63. what is the word they really use?
    Languagehat, I wish I could remember. Now I’m trying to think of who I could ask without complicating my life. The idea that there were different words for different registers was what I found interesting, although given the foos-ha/colloquial Arabic dichotomy, maybe not that surprising. Also, للقضيب from that website is not the word they really use either. Everyone says “zib” but I have no idea how to spell it. If you are teaching the alphabet to children, z is for zebra, never zipper. And if you happen to say “zero, zip squat” (in English) in the back of a cab, it will stop conversation (in Arabic) in the front of the cab.

  64. marie-lucie says

    Nijma: who I could ask without complicating my life
    Lameen Souag, can we ask you a question?

  65. marie-lucie, Alan Shaw — this a capella singer thanks you…

  66. Languagehat, I wish I could remember. Now I’m trying to think of who I could ask without complicating my life.
    Please don’t bother, I’m not all that curious—I thought you were being coy, not forgetful.

  67. Coy, heh. I’m your age, LH, but thanks for the vote of confidence. The fact is, if you don’t use your foreign language vocabulary, you tend to lose it.
    But if m-l wants to know, that’s good enough for me. I’ll see if I can turn up something (although I’m really hoping Lameen will show up).

  68. marie-lucie says

    Actually, Nijma, I couldn’t care less, since I don’t know any Arabic anyway. But I thought of Lameen since he speaks Arabic, travels in Arab countries, and is a linguist, therefore unlikely to be fazed by such a question.

  69. It’s not that I’m fazed by such a question–there is always a way to talk about adult subjects without being deliberately crass, at least in the West–but the question itself would carry some baggage in a culture where men and women do not talk to each other.
    The one exception to the no talking rule is when a man approaches a woman and assures her he is religious and proper and wants to marry her. If she likes him and thinks he is respectful, she tells him she is also very proper and religious and he can talk to her family. In this way they short-circuit the arranged marriages their families have in mind for them–sometimes it does work.
    Any other variation to the conversation, like asking about the word for “condom”, would only be proof positive of prostitution, and then the conversation would really deteriorate. For a woman who lives alone in an Arab country, this could be dangerous; in the west it might only be awkward, particularly if one is friendly with the wife.

  70. marie-lucie says

    Nijma, I am well aware that you (or I, or most people) couldn’t ask the average man or woman from one of the Arab cultures, for the reasons you give, but you (or anyone) could ask an Arabic-speaking linguist, especially in writing not in person.
    Now, perhaps it is time to drop the subject.

  71. Don’t give up! I have a friend on the case! She suggested two words from Google translate (below) but is consulting with a friend too.
    كوندو مغطاءة

  72. That’s wise. With Google translate you could be saying “plastic bag”.

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