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“As camp as a mushroom”

Updated: Apr 10

Let’s scamper around in the field of word origins

In a recent Spanish lesson we came across a slightly new meaning for “campo”, which we already knew means both ‘countryside’ and a single ‘field’. It’s not a huge leap of logic, then, to understand this sentence:

“La profesora es una eminencia en el campo de la filosofía.”

Indeed, we have the same abstract usage in English:

The professor is an authority in the realm/area/field of philosophy.

This led onto one of those little tangents that I promised to research more fully, as my off-the-cuff knowledge on the full history of this word family was patchy. Having looked more deeply into it, it becomes clear that it is more of a word dynasty than a mere family...

Have you ever wondered about the similarity between the following words: camping, campaign, champagne, and champignons? Well, they all derive from the same source and it doesn’t stop there.

“Champagne” has an exotic ring, due to its associations with luxury, but the word itself is nothing more than a corruption of the French word for countryside, campagne, as the drink was originally called “vin de campagne”. It is a myth, by the way, that Dom Pérignan shouted to his Benedictine brothers: “Come quickly, I am tasting the stars!” as he ‘invented’ sparkling white wine. If anything, a case could be made that it was the English who first produced the drink, but we can let that go and head back to camp.

So, if camp and campo come from the original Latin “campus” then it is easy to see where we get “camping” – something you do in a field, and political “campaigning”, which you do by going from place to place – field to field.

Similar to the above-mentioned drink, “champignons” sounds a lot classier than mushrooms, but the French word really just means “things from the field”, as opposed to things you had to take the trouble to plant and nurture.

In days of old, when knights were bold, the very best soldiers on the battlefield were known as campiones, from which we get ‘champion’.

At the other end of the bravery scale, there was a word for those who deserted the battlefield: excampere, which gives us the word ‘scamper’.

On an interesting side-note, there are plenty of words in English that start with sc--, st--, or sp--, which have relations with an initial e—in the original Latin and/or in modern day French and Spanish:

espagnol / español

étudier / estudiar

école / escolar (adj)

Young, single men who made up the majority of the travelling armies were ‘entertained’ by a certain class of itinerant ladies who offered their services. They became known as camp followers, but when such antics were impossible, the role fell to those men who were either forced, or eager, to fill the role. In order to make themselves as alluring as possible, they would do what they could to emulate the ladies whose boots they were filling: garish make-up, outlandish dresses, exaggeratedly effete mannerisms: in short, ‘camp’!

So far, all references have been made using Latinate words, but there is one egregious example of how ‘camp’ made the etymological journey over the border into German. “Kampf” means battle, struggle, fight, as we know from Hitler’s infamous two-thousand page diatribe.

So, the next time you hear someone ask, probably rhetorically, “How camp can you get?” you now know the answer:

Sitting in a tent, in a field (or a university campus), eating mushrooms, drinking champagne, reading Mein Kampf.

Nota bene:

There is another little family of words, not to be confused. The Latin for bell is “campana”, which remains unchanged in modern Spanish; this gives us campanology and campanile, and is a different root altogether.

Andrew Wenger, SameSky Languages

We currently have some vacancies in French and Spanish groups, particularly at the beginner and intermediate levels. Please contact me here if you would like to find out more about joining a class. Don’t worry - classes are much more focused on modern conversational language, not lectures on word origins – I save that for the blog posts.

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