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A musician friend dropped by this week and reminded us of the musical instrument hidden in the word hydraulic. The Greek aulos was a simple reed pipe and the ancestor of the modern oboe (from French hautbois, "high wood[wind]"). It also gave its name to the hydraulus (from Greek hydra, "water" + aulos, "pipe"), a kind of organ used to accompany sporting events in the Roman circuses [or should that be circi?]. The hydraulus  was the first keyboard instrument and was really a mechanized pan-pipe which used water pressure to regulate the flow of air.

Musicologists believe that ancient aulos players used a technique called "circular breathing" which allows one to breathe in through the nose while blowing out through the mouth. This may sound difficult but, trust us, it's even harder than that. So that's why the bagpipe was invented. Not in Scotland, as many people assume, but in the Middle East, possibly Syria, around 100 B.C. The bag of the bagpipe replaces the mouth and a simple leather flap (called a clack-valve) permits the player to fill it with air without interrupting the continuous flow of notes. Occasionally, one hears the Scottish bagpipe referred to as the pibroch (it actually means a set of variations played on the pipes). This word comes from the Scots Gaelic word piobaireachd, "the art of piping". The lowland, English-speaking Scots, who are perhaps not so enamored of the pipes as their highland compatriots, use the phrase to tune ones pipes to mean "to begin crying".

Ultimately, all pipe words come from the Indo-European root *pipp-, "to chirp". This has given us the word peep (the noise birds make) and pigeon (from Latin pippire, "to chirp").

Those who play bagpipes usually refer to themselves as pipers. This usage hints at the Zampogna and pifaro in the streets of Scapoliearliest meaning of pipe. Before the word was used to describe a device for smoking tobacco or a piece of plumbing equipment, pipe meant a woodwind instrument. A look at the German equivalent, pfeife, suggests yet another woodwind instrument: the fife. A fife is a simple, unkeyed flute, usually in a high pitch so that it may compete with drums. Obviously, the PF was too much for English-speakers to handle so they dropped the P.  The Italians had the same problem but their solution was to discard the F. The result was the word pifaro, the name of a shawm which is traditionally played in duet with the Italian bagpipe called the zampogna. A shawm is a simple, double-reed instrument which takes its name from the Latin calamus, "reed". The name zampogna is a corruption of Latin symfonia (from Greek syn- "together" + phone "sound") which makes it linguistically identical to the Brazilian accordion called the sanfona. Symfonia is also the origin of our symphony, of course.

The words derived from pfeife (pipe, fife and pifaro) show the consonant patterns P*P, F*F, and P*F but there's no F*P. This made us wonder if there were any "pipe" words with this pattern. We thought we'd found one with fipple - the wooden plug which forms an essential part of the mouthpiece of recorder-type flutes. But, no. Fipple is derived from the Indo-European root *leb-, "lip", and is related to flipi, an Icelandic word for "horse lips".  We think we've found a new term of abuse for the schoolyard!

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Last Updated 09/02/02 11:57 AM