With three tales of war and warfare behind us, we leave France and head north into a country without which we’d have no saxophones, no contraceptive pills, no inline skates, no Brussels sprouts, and, oddly, no
But that’s not all we owe to our North Sea neighbours in Belgium. (The humble sprout is by no means the only word in the dictionary to have taken its name from the Belgian map.) Without Belgium, we’d have no weekends away at health spas. Worse still, Paddington Bear would be without his trademark duffel coat.
Where is Spa Belgium? – Spa Belgium Map – Spa Belgium Map Download Free Photo Gallery
Duffel is the name of a small town south of Antwerp, where a thick woollen fabric bearing the town’s name has been produced since the fifteenth century at least. Before long, this durable, heavy-duty cloth was being used to manufacture all kinds of hard-wearing items, from blankets and coverlets to thick weatherproof overcoats and equally thick, equally weatherproof backpacks and satchels. By the nineteenth century, its popularity had spread worldwide, and duffel cloth had become so synonymous with these hard-wearing bags that the word duffel was being used for any military-style sack made of heavy-duty fabric. In American English in particular, an anglicised version, duffle, had become a byword for the random kit and equipment kept inside a duffel bag – as mentioned in this crucial piece of advice from a nineteenth-century guide to the great outdoors:
When the winter rains are making out-of-door life unbearable [in the woods] it is well that a few congenial spirits should, at some favourite trysting place, gather around the glowing stove and exchange yarns, opinions and experiences. Perhaps no two will exactly agree on the best ground for an outing But one thing all admit. Each and every one has gone to his chosen ground with too much impedimenta, too much duffle The temptation to buy this or that bit of indispensable camp-kit has been too strong and we have gone to the blessed woods handicapped with a load fit for a pack-mule. This is not how you do it.
No, that is not how you do it. But that is how you warn others against taking too much kit.
Eighty miles from Duffel is another Belgian town whose name has found its way into the dictionary – although linguistic folklore would have you believe otherwise.
There’s an old etymological legend that claims the word spa is an acronym for the Latin tag sanitas per aquam, or ‘health through water’. But just like the equally tall tales behind words like posh, golf, and cabal (and just like that dubious theory about potentially explosive manure once being ‘shipped high in transit’), in reality there’s no acronym hiding here. Spa merely derives from the Belgian town of Spa, whose natural mineral waters were once so well known across Europe that its name became a byword for any similar resort.
Spa stands in a valley in the Ardennes mountains, where a number of thermal freshwater springs have bubbled up to the surface to provide the town with both a continual supply of mineral-rich water and a continual supply of cash-rich tourists, who have for centuries been drawn to the supposedly curative waters.
Writing in the first century ce, the Roman scholar Pliny the Elder was among the first to describe a ‘remarkable spring that sparkles with innumerable bubbles’ in the Belgian corner of Gaul, which contained, he advised, health-giving waters that could be used as a ‘purgative’ and as a cure for ‘three-day fevers’, bladder stones and other ‘calculous affections’. Quite how effective a remedy the waters actually proved is debatable, but no matter: tales of their healing and invigorating properties continued to circulate, and before long Spa was attracting quite the A-list clientele.
Augustine de Augustinus, a Venetian-born physician who counted both Henry VIII and Cardinal Wolsey among his patients, is said to have been one of Spa’s earliest foreign advocates. So too were Margaret of Valois, wife of Henry IV of France, and the English king Charles II, who visited Spa’s thermal baths during his exile in 1654. Even Russia’s Peter the Great got in on the act, labelling Spa ‘the best place to take the waters’ in all of Europe.
Others, admittedly, were less impressed. When the Italian adventurer Giacomo Casanova found himself in Spa in the summer of 1783, he mused, ‘I don’t know by what convention, once a year, every summer, all nations of Europe assemble [here] to do all sorts of foolish things.’ (Finding no female interest in the town other than ‘an English lady who addressed me with proposals that froze me with fear’, he quickly moved on.) The poet Matthew Arnold likewise complained that Spa ‘astonished us by its insignificance’ when he visited in 1860, but by then the town had become something of a victim of its own success.
It was during its heyday in the mid eighteenth century that Spa became so celebrated internationally that its name became a nickname for any similar health resort; the earliest use of spa in this context dates from 1781. But by then so many visitors were plaguing the town that a ‘cure tax’ was imposed in an attempt to discourage their numbers – with little effect. And with the visitors came the visitor attractions.
Shops, hotels, restaurants, casinos and even an opera house were all constructed in Spa in an effort to cash in on the tourists’ francs, transforming it from a serene, picturesque mountain retreat into a bustling honeytrap and a luxury playground for the wealthy and well connected. As similar ‘spa resorts’ began to emerge elsewhere, Spa failed to see off the competition and its popularity began to dwindle. The town continued to struggle during the two world wars and the post-war decades, and eventually saw out the twentieth century a shadow of its former self.
Recent attempts to revive the town have proved successful and have sparked a resurgence in tourism, but no matter what its prospects may be, the town’s place in etymological history – and, for that matter, in our dictionary – has long since been secured.
The origin of the French fry is subject to a lengthy dispute between France and Belgium, with the Belgians claiming that peasants in the Meuse valley were frying chopped potatoes in oil as early as the seventeenth century. The saxophone, meanwhile, was invented by Belgian musician Adolphe Sax in 1846, and the science behind the modern oral contraceptive pill is credited to Nand Peeters, an obstetrician and gynaecologist born in Mechelen in 1918. As well as giving the world an early form of self-propelled wheelchair and a pedal-operated revolving tea-table, Belgian inventor John Joseph Merlin is credited with producing the very first inline skates in 1760. Alas, while demonstrating his ‘skates contrived to run on wheels’ and simultaneously playing the violin at Carlisle House in London in the late 1700s, Merlin, ‘not having provided the means of retarding his velocity, or commanding its direction impelled himself against a mirror of more than £500 value, dashed it to atoms, broke his instrument to pieces, and wounded himself most severely’.
Legend has it that five members of Charles II’s inner sanctum – Lord Clifford, the Earl of Arlington, the Duke of Buckingham, Lord Ashley and the Duke of Lauderdale – gave their names to Charles’s so-called Cabal Ministry, and ultimately gave us the word cabal. They didn’t. Cabal comes via Latin from qabbalah, a Hebrew word for a traditional interpretation of the Old Testament.
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