As little kids, we first ask “why?”and later as we work our way through the other wh– interrogatives—who, what, where, when, and so on—we eventually come to “whence?” though most of us will typically ask where something or someone comes from rather than trot out the 25-cent word lest we be thought to be putting on airs. Whatever.

The quest for origins has given rise to two popular –ologies: genealogy (Where did Billy Smith come from, i.e., what is Billy’s family history?) and etymology (Where did  the words Billy and Smith come from, i.e., what is their linguistic history?). As with genealogy, so etymology: Just as we may know when Billy Smith was born and can sometimes trace his lineage, at least up to a point, making guesses about his distant forebears on the basis of his relatives’ DNA if we’re lucky enough to have samples, so we can often determine with some degree of precision when and how a given word entered the language, what words are related to it, and, using a variety of methods, take a stab at reconstructing its long-lost ancestors. Two other genealogical possibilities—that Billy is a foundling, and there are multiple candidates for Billy’s paternity—have their lexicographical analogs as well: We have no clue as to a word’s provenance, and there are competing hypotheses as to a word’s origin.

Of the 156449 “English” words glossed in the OED online as of this writing, 4024 are labeled as “origin uncertain.” Early in the list is awning: “A word of obscure origin, apparently at first only in nautical use. Probably to be referred (as by Wedgwood) to French auvent ‘a penthouse of cloth, etc. before a shop window, etc.’ Cotgrave, early plurals in Littré auvens, auvans, medieval Latin auvanna, auvannus, whence *auvan, *auwn, awn; the termination is of course English –ing suffix1.E. Müller refers it to Low German havenung, < haven harbour, in sense of ‘a shelter from wind and weather’; Skeat compares ‘Persian áwan, áwang, anything suspended, awangān hanging, awnanga clothes-line’; but neither of these is applied in its own language to an awning; in particular an oriental origin seems incompatible with the history. French auvent is itself of doubtful etymol. See Diez, Littré, Du Cange.”   

Dictionary etymologies are replete with qualifications and polite weakeners. In addition to obscure, popular disclaimers include uncertain, apparently, probably, perhaps, and doubtful–one of several polite ways of saying that a proposed etymology is at best controversial and at worst completely off the wall–as in “French auvent is itself of doubtful etymol.” Another form of disclaimer is signaled by the asterisk (*), signifying that a given form is hypothetical—it should have existed but nobody has ever seen it. Another way of kicking the can down the road is to send the reader to other sources (such as Diez, Littré, and Du Cange), assuming you can track them down.

So, let’s have a look French auvent to see what its DNA might tell us.  (Spoiler alert: As the OED warns us, the derivation of awning from auvent is an ignotum per ignotius, that

is, an explanation of that which is unknown by that which is even more unknown.) Here are the main contenders:

  • The author of www.arbre-celtique.com/encyclopedie/auvent-3759.htm says “the word auvent, designating a projecting part of a roof, comes from Vulgar Latin antevannum, surely derived from Gallic *andebanno. This term would then be a compound *ande-banno- signifying ‘front horn’ [corne de devant]. This roof projection being perceived by the Gauls as a horn.” We may for the moment overlook the fact that antevannum is given as an attested rather than a hypothetical form—and without a gloss at that. As Antoine Thomas puts it in his Mélanges d’étymologie française, “Auvent seems to be for anvan, a form preserved in Old Provençal, from *antevannum, a compound that should (must) have existed [a dû exister] in Vulgar Latin.”
  • Le Petit Robert derives auvent from Gallic *ande-banno, from ande- ‘forward’ and banno- ‘gable,’ sidestepping the question of an intermediate (*)antevannum.
  • Larousse étymologique gives as auvent’s progenitor *antevannum, “an obscure formation, perhaps from *banno, ‘horn’, in Gallic a protecting totem [totem protecteur].”
  • Bloch and von Wartburg, in their Dictionnaire étymologique de la langue française, say that auvent comes from Gallic *andebanno- “a compound consisting of the augmentative prefix ande and banno- ‘horn,’” adding by way of elaboration, “bull’s horns were used by the Gauls as a totem to protect their houses.” This is essentially the etymology favored by the Centre National de Ressources Textuelles et Lexicales (see http://www.cnrtl.fr/definition/auvents), though, as with the other *andebanno derivations, a certain amount of hand-waving is involved.
  • Pierre Guiraud (Dictionnaire des étymologies obscures), seizing upon these and other flies in the lexicographical ointment,  presents several arguments against the *andebanno hypothesis, to “ruin the already inherently very fragile semantic conjecture concerning mythical totemic horns.” Instead, he proposes deriving auvent from “a form of au d(e)vant” (‘in front’), itself derived from a possible (if unattested) Latinate construction meaning something like “in front of the in front,” and not from Old French anvant, which he derives from a related but different construction, once again reminding us of  the Monty Python pet shop sketch in which the shopkeeper proposes to derive a cat fom a dog:

Shopkeeper: I’ve got a lovely terrier.
Man: I want a cat.
Shopkeeper: Listen, tell you what. I’ll file its legs down a bit, take its snout out, stick a few wires through its cheeks. There you are, a lovely pussy cat.
Man: It’s not a proper cat.
Shopkeeper: What do you mean?
Man: Well, it wouldn’t meow.
Shopkeeper: Well, it would howl a bit.

Two final meows: (1) Du Cange (whose 19th-century Glossarium mediae et infimae latinitatis the OED suggests you see) has an entry for the word auvanna ‘a wooden sheltering projection [umbraculum ligneum projectum] appended to a window or workshop,’ citing Gallic auvent, as he does for antevanna (“umbraculum ex assamentis”). (2) Antevannus appears in its accusative singular form (antevannum) in Paolo Canciani’s late 18th-century Barbarorum leges antiquae in a passage describing where ship owners are and are not allowed to create rooms (camerelas) on a vessel. It is not clear what, exactly, an antevannus was but, for what it’s worth, a vannus, according to Auguste Val’s 1848 Glossaire Nautique was ‘a room at the poop,’ from Latin vānus ‘empty.’

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