The word bassoon: a big bass or a Roman signal trumpet?

The word “bassoon” is listed as just being a large bass, the same way that “balloon” is a large ball. There are indeed such things as a “tenoroon” and a “contrabassoon,” suggesting that wherever the word comes from, it does get analyzed that way, and indeed most dictionaries including the online OED list it as deriving from French “basson”, which does indeed mean “bassoon”, and which the French TLFi dictionary dates to the 17th century and says derives from Italian “bassone”, the augmentative form of “basso” listed as 17th century by the Italian Tommaseo-Bellini dictionary.

But the Dutch Woordenboek der Nederlandsche Taal has the more-or-less identically pronounced “basoen” as an alternate spelling for “bazuin”, which is, in fact, a buisine, i.e. a medieval signal trumpet based originally on an Arab design but named after the buccin, an earlier military Roman signal horn called “buccina” in Latin or “βυκάνη” in Greek. The Grimm brothers, meanwhile, give the same origin for the German word “Posaune”, which today means “trombone” but is also used to translate “σάλπιγξ” (yet another kind of military trumpet) in German New Testament translations, as indeed is “bazuin” in Dutch.

Quite venerable, all in all. But how does it compare to the “big bass” theory? Well… I tried to track down this Italian “bassone”, and quite to my surprise, found basically nothing. There’s a village by that name near Verona, but most Italian dictionaries don’t list the word at all. Tommasseo-Bellini does have a cursory one-line reference to it as being, indeed, the augmentative form of “basso”, but defines it only as referring to a singer with an exceptionally deep voice. The Italian word for an actual bassoon, meanwhile, is “fagotto”, so called because early ones were constructed of multiple pieces of wood held together like a bundle of sticks.

So where did this French “basson” come from? Well, TLFi has a reference to Nostradamus that I simply cannot trace down, but the French Wikipedia sends me to the Encyclopédie. The original 1750s one by Diderot, which indeed has an entry for “basson de hautbois”, or “basson” for short. And then I get stuck in the variety of double reed instruments with confusingly similar names that are subtly different in English and French. The “hautbois baryton”, while literally “baritone oboe”, seems to be a late 19th century innovation called the bass oboe in English, while a “basse de hautbois” appears to be a contrabass oboe, and indeed extant in Diderot’s days (per English Wikipedia, citing a book I don’t have).

In the end, it seems plausible that the bassoon is, indeed, some kind of bass rather than some kind of buccina, but the word probably crossed the Alps quite separately from the instrument. French doesn’t have augmentatives, but Italian does, so it could cheaply supply a word for “voice below bass” that French musicians, who saw a lot of Italian jargon anyway, could probably make sense of pretty much immediately. At the same time, “basoen” is too close of a match for “bassoon” not to at least mention in an etymological dictionary, in my opinion.

References, sadly without links because the forum won’t let me post more than two:

  • TLFi “basson”
  • TLFi “buisine”
  • English Wikipedia “buisine”
  • English Wikipedia “buccina”
  • WNT “bazuin”
  • Grimm & Grimm “Posaune”
  • Grande Dizionario “bassone”
  • Tommaseo-Bellini “bassone”
  • Encyclopédie de Diderot “basson de hautbois”
  • Wikipedia “bass oboe”

Links are at

Bassoons (or any similar instruments) were not made using bundled sticks. If you try making one that way, you’ll see why. :slightly_smiling_face: (The main reasons are that it cannot leak air anywhere other than where it’s designed to do so, and that the hollowed-out parts of the wood must be of highly accurate, precise, and stable dimensions or it will play out of tune.) It could probably be done somehow, but it would be very difficult to get it right, and the maker would be muttering “There has to be a better way…”.

EDIT: While a literal bundle of sticks would clearly fail Bassoon Construction 101, it would make sense to get a good piece of wood (or several), carefully saw them lengthwise, hollow out the appropriate air channels, and then bind it all together.

But it’s certainly possible that it got a nickname for looking like a bundle of sticks. Modern bassoons don’t really look that way to me, but my opinions on the appearance of modern bassoons aren’t relevant to the discussion. “Sticks” could even be referring to the rods and levers that move some of the keys.

The word “tenoroon” and other such modifications are, as far as I know, much newer, and coined by (relatively!) modern instrument makers who started building more bassoons in non-traditional sizes and wanted particular names for them (instead of clumsy phrasing like “three-quarter size” etc). To me, those names seem to come from re-analyzing the original word in a way that was convenient and useful but not “authentic”.

I don’t know the historical timeline for this next part, but here goes … Speculation alert: One traditional use of the bassoon was to play the literal bass line in a group – to “be the bass” in the same way that modern bands have an instrument called “bass”. Historically, the bass-line function was most often performed by the cello (or the viola da gamba with a similar range), and these were called “bass” as well. (The double-bass we see now had not yet become common; it is not double size, but its original function was to strengthen the group’s bass sound by duplicating – doubling – the part played by the cello, which was still viewed as the primary bass instrument, and which got far fewer chances at the melody than it does now.) Anyway, with more than one instrument for playing bass lines, and a default of simply calling such an instrument “bass”, it would make sense to look for a name for this wind instrument that incorporates “bass” but makes it clear which bass we’re talking about.

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In French, the -on ending is often a diminutive, but can also be an augmentative.

In Italian, I know that the -one ending is often an augmentative. Can it be a diminutive in Italian too?

“Basson” from French “basse” with a diminutive is not a far-fetched idea. But I have no evidence except plausibility.

I think it’s clear that there is an accidental convergence (in Dutch, but not exclusively there) between the “buccina” category of words and the “bass” category of words, which refer to completely separate things. Buccina (etc) refers to trumpet-like instruments, and we even have buccinator muscles to play them with.

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No, in Italian -one (-ona) is exclusively an augmentative.
Some diminutives are -ino (-ina), -etto (-etta), -olo (-ola) -[c]ello (-[c]ella) - cf. “violino”, “violoncello” (both formally diminutives of “viola”).
Curiously enough “violoncello” seems to contain both the augmentative -on[e] and the diminutive -ello, don’t ask me why - maybe mediated by Fr. violon, but that’s just a wild guess.

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I think the old makers distinguished two types or categories of bowed string instruments, with the larger-size category having the generic name “violone”, and that the word “violoncello” means something like “a smaller variant of the large type”. But I haven’t studied it and I don’t know for sure.

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In English, diminutives and augmentatives are not delimited as in my language, Spanish. In English, words ending in -oon are loanwords with a built-in augmentative.

The diminutive and augmentative in languages ​​of Latin origin vary in a single vowel, so much so that proverbs are made by varying the vowel that differentiates augmentative and diminutive.

In reference to the topic of the thread, basoon is an augmentative, and buccina is not etymologically related to bassoon, bass, but to bos, ox, + cana, chant, song.

This makes me think that the famous “Diferencias sobre Guárdame las vacas” should be played by trumpets, not guitar. :grin: