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Volcanoes in the OED

J. C. Dahl: Vesuvius Erupting, 1826

Within the dictionary offices, we refer to the Oxford English Dictionary‘s recently revised and updated batch of words as the blue batch, as blue is the leading headword. Colour words are often big entries, involving many different subject areas. Here, we have natural history (bluebellblueberry, and blue heron, to name but three), country music (bluegrass), fashion (or not) (blue jeans, blue rinse), feminism (bluestocking), archaeology (and a type of gin) (bluestone), and the astronomer’s blueshift, the pessimist’s blue moon, the designer’s blueprint, and the yeller’s blue murder. These are selected from the 614 headwords, compounds, and other expressions covered in the blue alphabetical range.

The rest of the batch focuses on terms in the following alphabetical ranges: audience and audio-; Caribbean; credit and Creole; friend; gambling, game, and gammon; gang and gangster; heredity, serial and serious, smart (including smartphone and smartypants); taxonomy; and the volcano words.

Any one of these could provide the basis for an extended piece on lexical history and semantics, but we might look briefly at how the cluster of volcano words have shuffled their way into English.

As is often the case when a new term enters English, there is a scramble for several years between competing forms to see which will gain the ascendancy. Vulcan seems to be the first of this cluster to surface in English, according to the OED’s updated entry. Vulcan, long known in English as the name of the Roman god of fire and metalworking, developed new meanings in English from the Middle Ages onwards (a cuckold, a blacksmith, a lame person). In the early fifteenth century we find the word creeping into one of the manuscripts of Sir John Mandeville’s supposed Travels:

In þat Ile is the Mount Ethna‥& the wlcanes þat ben eueremore brennynge. – Mandeville’s Travels (Titus C.xvi) (?c1425) 36

English received this isolated instance from early French, and nothing more is heard of the term in the record until 1578, when it appears in a translation of a Spanish text:

Then appeared the vulcan and concauetie, which was about halfe a league in compasse. – T. Nicholas tr. F. Lopez de Gómara Pleasant Hist. Conquest W. India (1578) 160

As volcanoes are not homegrown phenomena it is not surprising that English speakers called them by a foreign term. Jostling for pole position with vulcan we have volcan, which also comes to us from early French or Spanish, first of all (according to the available evidence) in John Frampton’s translation of Seville doctor Nicholas Monardes’ description of the “newe founde worlde” of the Americas, published just one year before Nicholas’s vulcan:

Other Sulphur‥founde nigh vnto the Volcan of Nicaraga. – J. Frampton tr. N. Monardes Three Bookes (1577) i. f. 31

But it was the form with the final –o that swept aside the competition in the long run. Firstly Italian vulcano (which had a good run from Samuel Purchas’s Pilgrimage in 1613 into the early twentieth century) and triumphantly volcano (recorded first in another translation of 1665 and gaining ground as the established spelling in the eighteenth century:

The effects of Volcano’s and Subterranean Fires are no less manifest than their cause is unknown. – G. Havers & J. Davies tr. Another Coll. Philos. Conf. French Virtuosi (1665) cix. 49

By the end of the seventeenth century the volcano was firmly settled in the English-speaker’s mind, and available for use in new contexts. Here are some of them:

These poor deluded People should consider what Mischiefs and Desolations those Vulcanos of Zeal have brought upon this Island by their dreadful Eruptions. – G. Mackenzie Reason (1690) ii. 140

Blow him into a Flame, and you may see Vulcano’s, Hurricans and Borasco’s in him. – T. P. Blount Ess. (1697) 143

How shall the Earth tremble with dreadful Earthquakes, opening her self with a Thousand Mouths, and casting forth, as it were, whole Volcanos [1672 Volcanies; 1684 Volcames; 1692 Volcanes] of Fire and Sulphur. – V. Mullineaux tr. J. E. Nieremberg Contempl. State Man (1699) (ed. 5) i. x. 111

The variation in spelling in the last example shows the level of uncertainty over how to write volcano when it first started being used widely.

These three examples are in fact the OED’s first examples of three separate nuances from the late seventeenth century:

Something which bursts out, or is liable to burst out, unpredictably into violent or dangerous activity; a potentially explosive situation

A violent feeling or passion, esp. one in a suppressed state.

An eruption or discharge of flame, smoke, etc., from a volcano. Now chiefly in extended use: a violent outpouring or blast of fire, liquid, debris, etc.

New words also feature in the volcano/Vulcan area, thanks to Star Trek. We’ve added a new sense of  the noun (and a new adjective) Vulcan to cover the fictional alien race from Star Trek.  A casual look through the Oxford English Corpus suggests that Star Trek allusions have become at least as common as Classical allusions in the evidence for this word’s use. Although, Vulcan is not the first term from Star Trek to be recorded in the OED. There are also entries for Klingon,mind meld, and prime directive, among others. The series has been an enduring fixture in the pop-cultural landscape of the late 20th and early 21st centuries, so it isn’t surprising that it is leaving its mark on the English language.