Etymologising through my hat?

shapkaBusiness deals that seem too good to be true usually are, and the same is true for etymologies.

This morning, I came across the Turkish word şapka, pronounced /shapka/, for ‘hat’. It reminded me of the French word chapeau, and I thought the -ka ending sounded just like a Russian suffix, as in babushka (grandmother) and balalaika (literally ‘babbler’).

Now, it is a fact that Turkish has borrowed a lot from French, and it’s another fact that Turks and Russians had close relations for centuries (though words mostly went from Turkic languages to Russian rather than the other way round). But surely it would be silly to think that Turkish might first have borrowed a noun from French and then slapped on a Russian suffix.

As indeed it hasn’t. But my fleeting intuitive association was surprisingly spot-on after all – both good and true, for once. Turkish has borrowed şapka in its entirety from Russian, and this shapka was indeed formed from of a suffix -ka and a mediaeval (!) loan from French: either chape or its diminutive chapel; chapeau is very close to both of them.

And what’s the use of all this, you may well ask? Well, for one thing it’s a reminder that Turks and Russians weren’t always at each other’s throats, as they were last week – though admittedly, there has been a lot of that, too. And in practical terms, I’m unlikely ever to forget either the Turkish or the Russian word for ‘hat’. Now that I’m studying both languages a bit, that’s a truly good deal.

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