Another in the “live and learn” series: I ran across the phase sola topee today and vaguely thought “Shouldn’t that be solar topee?” After all, it’s a pith helmet worn for protection from the sun. But when I looked it up, I discovered that it is in fact sola, a word for an Indian plant, Aeschynomene aspera, whose pith is used for such helmets and whose Hindi name is śolā.

Here’s an enthusiastic description of the hat from Thomas W. Knox in “The English in India” (Harper’s, 1879, p. 570):

The rarest of these things is the sola topee, or ventilating hat — an excellent device to protect the head from the effect of the tropical sun. It is worn almost exclusively by Europeans, is made of pith, covered with white cloth, and is so contrived that the air may freely circulate around the cranium of the wearer. Many of these hats have found their way to America, and it would be well if they should come into fashion for summer use. With the sola topee a sun-stroke is next to impossible — at least so say the sojourners in the East.


  1. Funny, Noel Coward makes the same mistake in “Mad Dogs and Englishmen.” That’s the only place I’d heard the term before.

  2. Hobson-Jobson tells us that Albrecht Dürer had an elder-pith hat. (What is it with printmakers and their hats? Rembrandt: fur, Goya: top-hat, Lucas van Leyden: flat, Whistler: broad-brimmed, Van Gogh: gray felt.)

  3. Warhol: blond wig.
    Chardin two self-portraits

  4. Warhol: blond wig.
    Chardin two self-portraits

  5. I found one site on the Internet where you can buy one. It wasn’t cheap… (I won’t list the URL for fear of being deleted as a spammer 🙂 )

  6. I take it it’s just an odd linguistic coincidence that a (sola) topee and a toupée are both head-coverings?

  7. It might not be a coincidence… “Toupee” is from Old French “toup, top, tup”, apparently borrowed from the same Germanic source as English “top”. The OED suggests that Hindi ṭopī might be related to Hindi ṭop “helmet or hat”, which might be borrowed from Portuguese topo “top”, which I assume is also borrowed from Germanic.

  8. I’ll be damned. The things you learn!

  9. And could not the final ‘r’ have come originally from the rhotacisation of some Brits?

  10. The final ‘r’ also denotes possessive i.e. topi made of sola.
    Sola has a texture like balsa wood and I have seen elaborate carvings of temples etc. It’s white, so ideal for carving the Taj Mahal…

  11. Goofy: looking at a list of Portuguese loans into Hindi, the main argument against your Portuguese etymology is that Portuguese /t/ seems to be borrowed as a dental /t/ in Hindi, not a retroflex /t/ : English dentals, on the other hand, seem to be borrowed as retroflexes in Hindi. Hence, unless the similarity is purely coincidental, the loan seems to have entered Hindi from English.
    Iakon: un-etymological final /r/ is found in some English loans in Indo-Aryan, so your supposition is certainly possible.

  12. The “topee” could well have had an English origin, since that was about the time “top hats” were in fashion and that element may have simply been associated with hats in general at the time. That’s sounds kind of weak, but who knows… Was there some more specific reason to the use of “top” in “top hat”?
    “English dentals, on the other hand, seem to be borrowed as retroflexes in Hindi.”
    That makes sense, since they are almost far enough back to be heard that way.

  13. Would a more accurate Anglicization of the palatal sibilant in the Hindi name be shola ?

  14. Would a more accurate Anglicization of the palatal sibilant in the Hindi name be shola ?
    Depends entirely on the dialect/language of the speaker. Some varieties of North Indian (to avoid invidious specificity) render all the various Indic sibilants as /s/, others as /ʃ/ (sh).

  15. Etienne: good point.
    deadgod: The Hindi word is spelled both सोला solā and शोला śolā.
    The final ‘r’ also denotes possessive i.e. topi made of sola.
    In Bengali?

  16. Thanks, language hat and goofy. Neither intending to impose conformity nor to evade “invidious specificity”, I’d thought that all Indic palatalized “s”s sh’d.

  17. @goofy
    Yep- well spotted!

  18. Graham Asher says

    etymology from OED:
    [a. Hind ţopī hat; prob. the word mentioned in the Vocab. of Linguagem de Calicut in the Roteiro de Vasco da Gama 1497, ‘barrete: tupy’, related to Hind ‘top helmet or hat’ (Yule). (But some think the latter is an adaptation of Pg. topo top.)]
    The ţ above indicates a retroflex – it’s t with dot-under in the original.

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