Words on the move: Rappel’s migration

Photo: M. Michael Brady Confused as to what this French sign wants you to do? Don’t worry, it only looks like our familiar English word.

Photo: M. Michael Brady
Confused as to what this French sign wants you to do? Don’t worry, it only looks like our familiar English word.

M. Michael Brady
Asker, Norway

Many of the terms of mountaineering in English as well as Norwegian result from the intermingling of languages over time, particularly with French. The word rappel is an example.

Rappel is a loanword from French, in which according to Larousse it has six meanings as a verb and 10 meanings as a noun. English adopted just two of those meanings. Until the mid 19th century, rappel in English meant the ceremonial roll of drums to summon soldiers to arms. In 1931, an article in The Times (UK) Literary Supplement added the second meaning of roping down by describing the rappel as a technique used by climbers in France.

With time, the first meaning fell into disuse. Today rappel is used only in its mountaineering sense. Norwegian adopted and kept three of the French meanings, the recalling, as of an ambassador from abroad; withdrawal; and the mountaineering usage, spelled with two l’s, rappell.

French has retained the full spectrum of meanings of rappel. Perhaps most visible in everyday life is the imperative of the verb rappeler, which means “to remember.” It appears alongside roads on rectangular regulatory plates under speed limit signs to remind drivers of the maximum allowable speeds within speed control zones.

In the timeline of mountaineering, rappelling is French. It was first done in 1879 by Chamonix guide Jean Charlet-Straton (1840-1925) in the first ascent of Petit Dru, a needle in the Mont Blanc massif.

German also was a source of loan words into both English and Norwegian. In 1911, German climber and inventor Otto Herzog (1888-1964) first used a Karabinerhaken, a descriptive term for a snap link based on a rifle hook that was used to facilitate rappelling. That word was borrowed and shortened to karabiner in Norwegian and respelled as carabiner in English.

This article originally appeared in the Jan. 29, 2016, issue of the Norwegian American Weekly. To subscribe, visit SUBSCRIBE or call us at (206) 784-4617.

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