Managing editor and logophile Andy Hollandbeck reveals the sometimes surprising roots of common English words and phrases. Remember: Etymology tells us where a word comes from, but not what it means today.
As Roman armies expanded northward, they found an area of chalky, flat land in what is today northeastern France. The land, it turned out, was perfect for two things: growing grapes and waging war, and by the 5th century A.D., they were doing both of those things.
The area was called Comitatus Campaniensis. There’s quite a bit of feudal and military history behind the word comitatus, but in this sense it was the equivalent of the English word county. Campaniensis, though, derives from campania “level country,” from a noun that has become common in English academia: campus, the Latin word for “field.” Campaniensis means “open country,” which is what those Romans found when they reached those chalk flats.
In 1314, Comitatus Campaniensis — or in Old French Conté de Champaigne — was incorporated into France as the province of Champagne (losing an i in the process). Today, Champagne is a cultural and horticultural region but not a designated geopolitical area.
In its early centuries, Champagne was a commercial center, and the wine from Champagne — the vin du Champagne — was highly prized and sought after throughout Europe. In the second half of the 17th century, after a number of technological developments by a monk named Dom Pérignon, Champagne vintners began bottling a sparkling version of their wines in larger numbers, which were then shared and popularized among the European elite during the 18th century. Today, champagne has become synonymous with sparkling wine — though, according to oenophiles and the Comité Interprofessionnel du Vin Champagne, only sparkling wines from France’s Champagne region that meet a stringent set of rules have earned the name.
Before we bottle up this history of champagne, let’s go back to those roaming Roman armies for a moment: The Latin Campaniensis implied more than just open fields. I mentioned before that open land was good not only for wine but for waging war. During cold winters, soldiers would stay in their warm quarters, but after the weather warmed up in the late spring, they would take to the open country (the campania) to do military maneuvers and to seek battle. It was this sense of the land’s suitability for military use that was indicated by the word campaniensis.
This mustering of armies to the campania became the French campagne, which, by the mid-17th century, had become the English campaign. That word originally had only a martial meaning — “military operations aimed toward a specific result” — but it has since been diluted to the extent that no one would bat an eye at the existence of a campaign to prevent war.
Thus what began as a simple field — a campus — developed into the name of a sparkling wine, a series of organized actions, and the boundaries of a university.
Featured image: Shutterstock
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