Companionway is one of those words I’ve seen from time to time and never bothered to look up; the general sense ‘something you walk along on a ship’ sufficed for my purposes. But in reading Jane Stevenson’s The Winter Queen (I’m on a 17th-century kick these days) I hit the line “she pointed him speechlessly towards the stairs, steep as a ship’s companionway” and realized I had a completely misleading, if vague, image of a companionway, so I looked it up. Turns out it’s (in Merriam-Webster’s words) ‘a ship’s stairway from one deck to another’; M-W says it’s from companion ‘a hood covering at the top of a companionway’ and derives that “by folk etymology from Dutch kampanje poop deck.” You mean it has nothing to do with the usual word companion? thought I—but it turns out it’s not that simple. Here’s the OED:

cf. Du. kompanje, now usually kampanje, ‘quarterdeck’ (i.e. above the cabin in the old ships of the line), … corresp. to OF. compagne ‘chambre du majordome d’une galère’ (Littré), It. compagna, more fully chambre de la compagne, camera della compagna, … from It. and med.L. compagna, … ‘vivres, provisions de bouche’ (Jal).
The (camera della) Compagna was thus originally the pantry or store-room of provisions in the mediæval galley, found already in 14th c. Pantero-Pantera, Armata Navale (Rome 1613) iv. 45, describes it as ‘la camera della Campagna, che serve come una dispensa, nella quale sta il vino, il companatico, cioè carne salata, il formaggio, l’oglio, l’aceto, i salumi, e l’altre robbe simili’ (Jal). The name has passed in Du. and Eng. to other structures erected on the deck. In Eng. corrupted by sailors into conformity with COMPANION1 (to which it is indeed related in origin).

So a Vulgar Latin word meaning ‘what one eats with bread’ (cum pane) becomes a Romance word for ‘provisions’ and thus (via a phrase ‘room for provisions, ship’s storeroom’) to a particular cabin and then the deck associated with it, but its Dutch form kompanje sounded enough like the word for ‘someone who shares your bread with you’ that English sailors pulled it back into that form. Lovely! (But why does M-W ignore this backstory and leave the word’s history at the Dutch phase?)


  1. gregb1007 says

    Actually, the root words that you talk about here seem to me to have a different etymological origin. All of these words seem to revolve around the idea of field or plain in French and English: le champ – field, champignons – things that grow on field (mushrooms) campagne – the country, or a place with lots of fields, le champ de/du.. the field of/the scence of operations, where things take place

  2. Actually, the root words that you talk about here seem to me to have a different etymological origin

    One of the nice things about English is that one has the OED, and the random “actually … seem[s] to me” of other interested parties needs to overcome the citations that the OED provides if it is to be taken seriously. On that theme, you propose that the 14th-century Italian camera della Campagna, then used as a shipboard store-room was taken from “field or plain” ?

  3. In looking at some Dutch sources online, the usage of kampanje to indicate the poop deck goes back at least to the East-Indies trade and warships of that era in the 1600s. After that it continued to be used for the highest deck on a warship, even if that was the same height for the length of the ship. The raised poop deck was not necessarily in all ships a storage area for provisions; in the East Indies ships it housed the officers. In Dutch the company was called the Vereenigde Oostindiesche Compagnie — so I’m wondering whether, since the “company” officers were up there, the crew started calling the place the “company” or kampanje.
    In ships of the Middle Ages the raised poop seems to have had the function of a turretted tower on a castle during sea battles. In Dutch this was called the achterkasteel or rear castle. Sometimes it consisted of multiple decks. Gradually the voorkasteel (front castle) disappeared and the achterkasteel become known as the kampanje. Kampanje is also used today to mean campaign (political, advertising, military), but the preferred and vastly prevalent spelling for this is campagne.
    There is mention that some of the East Indies company ships had gardens installed on the kampanje deck to grow a variety of greens used to combat scurvy (lending a little support to gregb’s contention).

  4. It seems unlikely it’s a complete coincidence that the Dutch word is so similar to a Romance word with a similar meaning. Occam’s razor suggests the one was borrowed from the other.

  5. gregb1007 says

    Martin said:On that theme, you propose that the 14th-century Italian camera della Campagna, then used as a shipboard store-room was taken from “field or plain” ?
    Yes, camera della campagna as a shipboard store room could have been taken from field or plain. field or plain could have been taken to mean space in general (fields and place are open space and contain a lot of space.) Its possible that orginally the meaning was field, was then abstracted to space, and then concept of space extended to storage space.

  6. gregb1007 says

    from Latin campus, field.]
    Late Latin campnia, open country, battlefield,
    French campagne,
    Italian campagna, field, battlefield
    (Sorry for posting this as another message – don’t want to crowd up the comments – wish I could simply edit my last message and post this all in there. Feel free to delete the message above, if you wish)

  7. The problem with your contention greg is that the Italian word cited is not campagna, but compagna. These are two different words, with different meanings.

  8. Nomis, your point well taken.. campus and com + panis are two different Latin root words.
    However, I wouldn’t agree with Martin that camera della campagne and Kampanje in the sense of campaign (marketing or military) come from com+panis(lat) and companion(vulg. latn.) They might actually be derived from campus (field. latn)

  9. Following on from Martin’s comments, English sailors regularly worked on Dutch ships at least from the 17th century onwards, so there were probably a lot of naval terms that they picked up and later used on English ships.

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