I was reading Joel’s latest excerpt from Seven Myths of the Spanish Conquest, by Matthew Restall (which sounds like a must-read—as is, of course, Joel’s blog Far Outliers) when I was taken aback by the term “harquebus.” “Isn’t it arquebus?” thought I, but on consulting M-W and AHD I discovered that the entry form indeed had the h– (which makes sense, since it’s from Middle Dutch hakebusse ‘hook gun’; busse ‘tube, box, gun’ is from Latin buxis). But then when I went to Wikipedia I found the article was Arquebus, and on checking the Concise Oxford I found that arquebus was the entry form, with harquebus given as a variant. So I’m guessing this is a US/UK divide hitherto unknown to me (not surprisingly, since there’s not much discussion of early matchlock firearms these days).
One interesting point is that, to quote the OED article (itself antiquated, dating to the 1890s; the entry is under the heading “harquebus | arquebus”), “The name … meant literally ‘hook-gun’, from the hook cast along with the piece, by which it was fastened to the ‘carriage’; but the name became generic for portable firearms generally in the 16th century, so that the type with the hook was subsequently distinguished as arquebuse à croc“—making it surely one of the earliest retronyms.


  1. I’ve seen both forms, don’t know where.

  2. Likewise I’ve seen both, thinking that the h-form was simply antique.

  3. marie-lucie says

    I didn’t know that there was an English word (h)arquebus as the equivalent to French (une) arquebuse, I thought there was only crossbow.
    I am glad to learn about Dutch hakebusse. I can understand how the word was transformed in passing into French, losing its h and adding an r, by analogy with (un) arc ‘bow’.

  4. Marie-Lucie: “Crossbow” corresponds to French “Arbalète”, I believe. Some googling reveals that French used to have forms “haquebuse” and “harquebuse” (the definite article seems to always be “la”, never “l'”, indicating that the “h” stood for a genuine /h/, which at the time was a French phoneme).
    My guess is that “haquebuse” was the original form of the word in French, and indeed it is very much how we’d expect Middle Dutch “hakebusse” to be spelled in Middle French. I agree with Marie-Lucie that the initial syllable was probably reshaped under the influence of French “arc” (nice example of folk etymology!), but I think it happened in two stages: first, r-insertion (yielding “harquebuse”) and then h-deletion (yielding “arquebuse”). Whereas modern standard French only has “arquebuse” (which is the form of the word which seems to have entered most other European languages), English still has forms with and without initial “h” (considering how rare the word is today, however, I am not sure whether this is inded a British versus American difference in usage).
    Meaning that, while the word is ultimately of Dutch origin, its immediate source in English is French.

  5. Arbalest is also an English word for a type of crossbow.

  6. As usual, Etienne is right! I guess I was familiar with the words but not with the considerable difference between those two weapons, both of which are illustrated in Wikipedia.
    Since the arquebuse is not the crossbow, my appeal to arc is weakened, but on the other hand the addition of r could have been influenced by both arc and arbalète, with arquebuse following a folk-etymological tendency for using [ar]-initial words to designate weapons (including the generic armes which is quite unrelated).

  7. I suppose hake, the fish, comes from Dutch too?

  8. nGrams doesn’t suggest a US/UK distinction.

  9. A slightly-tangential anecdote: in a previous job I had to do some analysis of a few of Oxford University’s regulations for students, from the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. These were written in Latin. One of them was a list of items not allowed to be in students’ possession while they were ‘up’ at Oxford (unless they had express permission from senior proctors or simlar). These included motor cars, but also what the Latin text called an arcuballista (=arbalest). Being a medievalist I though ‘funny, why would Edwardian scholars in Oxford want a crossbow?’, but from the context it was clear that the regulation was using the word to refer to firearms, principally hunting-rifles.
    ‘Hake’ could well be from Dutch, though OED (unrevised entry from 1898) says ‘origin uncertain’, but also notes Norwegian hakefisk ‘hookfish’, though that is a generic term not normally applied to the hake.

  10. Spanish shows yet another interesting folk etymology. arcabuz (< MFr. arquebuse) has arca ‘ark, chest, box’ where a regular borrowing would have shown arque.
    I’m not sure this was a specifically Spanish innovation, though. Catalan also has arcabús, and although the RAE doesn’t mention it this form could have mediated between the French and the Spanish. Unfortunately, my knowledge of historical phonology doesn’t let me determine if neutralisation of unstressed vowels was already a feature of Catalan at at stage, which would be another possible explanation.

  11. nGrams doesn’t suggest a US/UK distinction.
    Not only that, it suggests the form without h- is considerably more common in both dialects, which leads me to wonder why the US dictionaries have the entry form with h-? And which form should I use?? Questions, questions…

  12. Etymonline points to Old English haca as the source of hake, though it generously allows as to how Old Norse haki might have been involved too. Both of them meant ‘hook, bolt’, and are connected with other hook-words in Germanic languages; it’s assumed that the reference is to the shape of the fish’s jaw, though it doesn’t look much more hook-like to me than any other fish’s jaw.

  13. It’s controversial, but the arcuballista probably referred to the cheiroballistra, a light catapult, in late antiquity, although it came to refer a heavy crossbow by early modern times, thus arbalest, arbalète, etc.
    I hadn’t heard any suggested connection to the hackbuss before.

  14. All those newfangled guns presented something of a challenge for those required to come up with names for them. Polydore Vergil refers to the arcusbusius and gives an Italian origin. Well, he would do, wouldn’t he?
    The nomenclature for guns and gunmen shifted by century as well as by country. By the middle fifteen hundreds, sclopetarii, adepts with the sclopus, a primitive handgun, became what we would call arquebusiers. Or Harquebusiers.
    (Scloppus occurs, as far as I can tell, only once in classical Latin, in Persius, to refer to a Bronx cheer. They were not without wit, the name makers….)

  15. Trond Engen says

    Norw. hake has several meanings:
    1. “chin”. Hakafisk might well mean “chinfish” or “jawfish”.
    2a (literal) “hook, snag, catch” (maybe especially in mothake “reverse hook: barb”)
    2b (metaphorical) “catch, snag”

  16. Interesting. In Algerian Arabic, an old-fashioned rifle is kabusa – obviously the ar- got reanalysed as the definite article al-.

  17. Very interesting indeed—a beautiful example of reanalysis!

  18. An old informal name for a gun in the Nordic languages is bøsse/børse, and the word is still used. Jaktbøsse is a hunting rifle, haggelbøsre is a shotgun, etc
    The oldest guns were hand cannons, so the hakebøsse would be a bøsse you lifted to your chin.
    You also find the words Saltbøsse-Pepperbøsse for salt and pepper shakers, so that would make a bøsse a container with holes in, or something that is shaken.In Danish, an homosexual is a bøsse.
    In Germanic, you often find an ümlaut, when a verb becomes a nomen, so if vi change the ø to y, we find the verb bysse.
    To “bysse” a child, means to rock a child gently with both arms, and a bysse on a boat is now the kitchen, but IIRC, it used to mean the rocking thing you cooked the food on boat, so that the waves would not cause a spill. Bosom, Bosoming in English is most likely related.
    Dutch probably has the same pattern, as it is very close to the Nordic languages, but I haven’t looked.

  19. correction: first line haggelbøSRe should be haggelbøRSe

  20. A propos of not much, Arblaster is a rare English surname: certainly rarer than Archer or Bowman. A knew a couple called Arblaster and Clarke who ran a travel agency: wonderful coupling of occupational surnames, I felt, combining the military and the civilian.

  21. So now we’ve come to the other end of (h)arquebus:
    Wikipedia: “The term “blunderbuss” is of Dutch origin, from the Dutch word donderbus, which is a combination of donder, meaning “thunder”, and bus, meaning “Pipe” (Middle Dutch: busse, box, tube, from Late Latin, buxis, box,[1] from Ancient Greek pyxίs (πυξίς), box: esp. from boxwood).”

  22. Lameen: I’m confused.
    “kabusa” goes back to an earlier /arkabusa/. Fine. But where does this form come from? French ARQUEBUSE? We’d expect (assuming /a/ replaces French schwa) */arkabuza/, since I believe /z/ is possible intervocalically in Algerian Arabic. The final /a/ excludes Spanish or Portuguese ARCABUZ (a final sibilant wouldn’t be a problem in Algerian Arabic either, right?)
    As for Italian ARCHIBUGIO it is an even worse mismatch. So: what is the *exact* transmission route for this word into Algerian Arabic? We need the French etymon, via a language/dialect which at the time of the borrowing lacked /z/. Hmm. My *guess* would be that the immediate source for the word in Algerian Arabic must be Sicilian or a Southern Italian variety (or perhaps the lingua franca?), which in turn borrowed the French form.

  23. Interesting point. Can’t find an appropriate form in Sicilian, though. What’s the Provençal form?

  24. Lameen: in Occitan the forms seem to be either /arkabyza/ or /arkabyzo/: the latter would be even more problematic as a source for the Algerian Arabic form, as the final vowel wouldn’t fit either.
    The more I think about it the more I think the lingua franca, which was the source of a great many words designating tangible objects throughout the Mediterranean, is the likeliest source of the word.
    Since its phonology was very much a “Romance lowest common denominator” (and since many Romance languages/dialects lack a /z/ phoneme), I could see how French ARQUEBUSE, or perhaps the Occitan form, would have been adapted in the lingua franca as */arkabusa/. This would fit perfectly. Considering how meager our corpus of the lingua franca is today, I very much doubt the word is attested.
    A related question: how widespread is /kabusa/? Any idea whether it is found elsewhere in North Africa or in the Arab world?

  25. marie-lucie says

    Occitan /arkabyza/arkabyzo/ (or perhaps /arkobyzo/?)
    Medieval Occitan (often called “Old Provençal”) had the feminine ending in /a/ (while masculine words end in consonants). Over the course of time the vast majority of Occitan dialects changed this unstressed /a/ to /o/. The current spelling prescribed by the university of Montpellier (in a region where the local dialect preserved unstressed /a/ among other things) is meant to closely follow Medieval Occitan, from which many modern dialectal forms can be deduced. This means that speakers and learners of other dialects (practically 100% of whom speak French as well) need to learn conversion rules. Other dialects often use a spelling which is closer to French spelling conventions.

  26. Arblaster & Clarke do wine tours.

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