Taking umbrage at an umbrella

Umbrellas existed in many ancient societies, including those of Egypt, Mesopotamia, China, and India, where they served to protect important people from the sun, serving also as a sign of prestige and power. From these societies, the umbrella spread to the Greek and Roman worlds, and into Western Europe. But as Europe slowly descended into the Dark Ages, eventually recovering, umbrellas seem to have disappeared from European use for about 1,000 years. It seems the difficult times threw some shade on the popularity and use of what we now think of as a common device. Which is ironic in that umbrella was borrowed from the Italian word ombrella, a modification of the Latin umbella, which came from umbra meaning “shade, shadow.”

umbrellasWhy did umbrellas disappear from use? We know only that umbrellas reemerged in Europe in Italy partway through the 16th century, but with a caveat: they were only to be used by popes and clergy. Yet, brighter days for umbrellas and potential umbrella users were ahead though. By the 17th century, umbrella use had spread to France, and by the 18th century umbrellas were common throughout Europe, with the parasol in particular a fashionable accessory for generations of ladies. Men did not start carrying personal umbrellas until the mid-19th century.

The word “umbrage” is a formal word that usually refers to a feeling of being offended by what someone has said or done. It is often used in the phrase “take umbrage.” Strangely, its etymological roots are in the Latin umbra. When “umbrage” was first used in the 15th century it referred to exactly that. But figurative use followed relatively quickly. Shakespeare used the word to describe Hamlet as being a shadow of himself: “his umbrage.” By the 17th century this meaning of “vague suggestion; hint,” had been joined by other uses, including the “feeling of resentment or offense.” The logic of this last shift in meaning is less clear, although some speculate that the unfortunate, spoken words cast a shadow over the conversation as people were offended by what was said. The speaker’s intention might have been other, but a darker meaning was taken.

Still, if you have ever had your view blocked by someone’s umbrella, you might well take umbrage at an umbrella.

Image Credit: CC-O Public Domain

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