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Flowering plant or keyboard instrument? - The etymological background of the Hungarian word ‘orgona’

17 January 2019

A fragrant flower or a set of pipes? The Hungarian word ‘orgona’ simultaneously means both lilac and pipe organ. Is there any semantic relation between the two meanings, or is just a mere linguistic coincidence? We investigated the history of the word ‘orgona’ with the help of etymologist Adrienne Dömötör.

The Hungarian word ‘orgona’ has two different meanings, but it is quite difficult to discover any kind of relationship between them. How is it possible that a particular word-form has such different contexts?

In today’s Hungarian the word ‘orgona’ has two lexical meanings, the instrument and the flower. At first, it is not easy to see the connection between these two seemingly completely different meanings, however the etymological literature described various semantic relation between them. According to one of these theories organ pipes could also be made by stems of lilac, and this connection gave the basis of the metonymy. This assumption is underpinned by the fact that there are similar semantic relations in other languages too. For example the botanical name of the lilac (Syringa) is related to the Greek word ‘surinx’ which means tube, pipe and reed. Another hypothesis suggests a similarity between the instrument and the flower clusters of the lilac. (I myself do not see this similarity; in my view the group of parallel lilac stems has more common with the organ pipes. But since the latter is not discussed in etymological dictionaries, it can be regarded as a simple observation of an amateur gardener.)


The word ‘organ’ appears in ancient texts, including the Old Testament to describe an instrument. Is the latter the oldest meaning of this word or does the word go back to an earlier root?

The word comes from a Latin word-family, and its roots, if traced back further, lead to the Greek word ‘organon’. The Latin ‘organum’ means implement, tool and musical instrument. In the Lexicon of Mediaeval Latin of Hungary the first meaning of the word is ‘musical instrument’. Since the majority of the Hungarian literature of the Middle Ages was of literary translation from Latin, many Latin words came into Hungarian in that time. The lexicon mentioned above shows that in Hungary this word-form was used primarily for the instrument.


René Magritte: La grande guerre (1964)


What do we know about the evolution of the word in Hungarian? How far can we date back its first mention?

Of course, we do not have records of the spoken language of the Middle Ages, but the word ‘organ’ can be traced back in the surviving Hungarian linguistic records of the mid-15th century. In these linguistic records the word ‘organ’ is linked to the subject of happiness, feast and music. The word can be found even in the earliest surviving Hungarian manuscript, i.e. the Jókai Codex, which was copied around 1448. The codex contains the legends of Saint Francis of Assisi in Hungarian, and the word ‘organ’ can be found there as a derivative in a story about Saint Clare of Assisi: "És testi fileimvel és lelkivel hallám mend az éneklést és az orgonálást.” (“I heard both the sound of organ and the responsories as if I were present there.”) The oldest Hungarian Bible translation, the so-called Hussite Bible was copied almost at the same time, around 1450. In the Codex of Wien, which contains parts of the Old Testament, the following can be read: "És menden népek örölnek vala (...) organákban és hegedőkben." (“They take the timbrel and harp, and rejoice at the sound of the organ.”) As a third example, the Festetics Codex can be mentioned. The latter is a prayer book copied around 1493 for the wife of Hungarian general Pál Kinizsi. In this manuscript the word ‘organ’ can be found in the Psalm 150: "Dicsérjétek őtet lanthúrokban és orgonában." (“Praise Him with stringed instruments and organ”)


Now let’s talk about Hungarian word ’orgona’ as lilac. When did this meaning appear in Hungarian and what kind of factors were involved in the process?

The ‘orgona’ as the name of the flower emerged much more later, only in the 18th century, and it can be regarded as the result of a Hungarian linguistic evolution. In addition to the previously mentioned theories, it is important to know that the word of Slavic origin ‘orgovány’ was also used in Hungarian dialects for lilac. Certainly, this could also have contributed to the spread of the word-form known today.


We have already mentioned ‘organum’ as the root-word of the Latin word-family. This word-form is also used in Hungarian in the meaning of human voice and also of journal and newspaper. However, interestingly, unlike other languages we use different word for the general description of human body parts. Why is the Hungarian word ‘szerv’ used instead of the Latin equivalent?

While the Hungarian word ’orgánum’ is dated back to the 18th century, the word ‘szerv’ only appears in the end of the 19th century. Our word ‘szerv’ was created by the Hungarian language reformers by adding a ‘v’ suffix to the root-word ‘szer’. At the time of the Hungarian language reform the revival of old suffixes was a completely established practice. The word ‘orgánum’ had several meanings: sense organ, tool, human voice and newspaper. Eventually the latter two have become widespread in Hungarian. The Latin word ‘organa’, the neuter, plural form of ‘organum’ is the direct Latin origin of the Hungarian word ‘orgona’.


Anna Unger