Sue Burke (mount_oregano) wrote,
Sue Burke

Robes were for thieves

Every word in every language has a history. The word robe and its Spanish cousin ropa (clothing) share a history of violence and sorrow that started 1600 years ago.

Back then, clothing was costly, even the most humble garment. Everything was made by hand: animals were clipped and plants were harvested and processed for fiber, fiber was spun into thread, thread was woven into cloth, and cloth was sewn into clothing. It was a long, tedious process that cost endless hours of labor.

In 407, as the Roman Empire was falling, the barbaric Germanic tribe of the Vandals swept into the Iberian peninsula. We get the word vandalism from their name, so you can imagine what they were like.

Meanwhile, the Visigoths, another barbaric Germanic tribe, were sacking Rome. In 456, after a brief, unwelcome stay in France, the Visigoths invaded and conquered Iberia and, during a century-long period of warfare, sacked whatever they found still standing.

What did they find to pillage? By then, not much. Although peasants had been reduced to poverty and hunger, they still had the clothes on their back – but not for long. Soon they were poor, hungry and naked.

The Germanic word for pillage was “raub” and it came to be applied to what the Visigoths took: clothing. That’s how the word “ropa” came into the Spanish language; and via French, the word “robe” came into English.

In parallel, the word raub became “rob” in English and robar (to rob) in Spanish, perhaps via the people whose clothing was robbed and couldn’t have been happy about it, so they remembered the initial meaning of the word.

It’s said that history is written by the victors, but the words they use can tell a secret history, sometimes a very different story.

— Sue Burke

Also posted at my professional writing website:


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