Wednesday, 5 January 2011

Happi thoughts

Happihumppa by Johanna Juhola Reaktori (Johanna Juhola: accordion, Sara Puljula: double bass, Milla Viljamaa: harmonium, Tuomas Norvio: live electronics)

Via Facebook: the exhilarating Happihumppa ("Oxygen Humppa"), a jazz fusion piece by the Finnish band Johanna Juhola Reaktori (I think it's technically a tango, whch is a bit more clear on listening to the other arrangement in the samples at

I don't know if the title was intended as a bilingual pun on "happi"/"happy" or just for the alliteration, but there's a rich vein of linguistic and cultural interest springing from it. "Humppa" is a Finnish dance music genre whose name derives from German "oompah" band style; it's extremely fast with a strong rhythmic emphasis.  It's probably best known via the spoof band Eläkeläiset ("The Pensioners"), who play deliberately gormless covers of pop, rock and metal classics (well-represented on YouTube). However, humppa isn't necessarily satirical.

If the "Happi" part, the Finnish for "oxygen", seems surprisingly concise and untechnical to English readers, it's because not all languages went down the English route of coining "inkhorn" scientific terms from Latin and Greek. Finnish, particularly following the lead of the philologist Elias Lönnrot, has a modern tradition of coining neologisms from its own Finno-Ugric roots; so while "happi" conveys exactly the same as "oxygen" (which means "acid former") it comes from the Finnish "hapan" (sour) and "happo" (acid). The Finnish for nitrogen, "typpi", similarly came from local roots, deriving from the dialect word "typehtyä" (to choke or smother).  Other such folksy element names are "vety" (hydrogen, dating from 1851 and relating to "vesi" - water) and "pii" (silicon, from "piikivi" - flint).

There are more examples of such technical words in the section on Lönnrot on page 71, History of Finnish Literature, by Jaakko Ahokas. For instance, the Finnish for electricity, "sähkö", was coined in 1845 by Samuel Roos from the verbs "sähähtää" and "säkenöidä" (spit and sparkle). "Tutka" (radar) was coined from the verb "tutkia" (to investigate) by the linguist Lauri Hakulinen, who also coined "muovi" (plastic) from "muovata" (to mould).

It's quite interesting that Lönnrot was the exact equivalent of English commentators, notably William Barnes - see Ansible ... and Anglish - who wanted English to be derived from its Germanic roots. German itself went to some extent down the same path as Finnish: nitrogen is "Stickstoff" - stifling stuff - and oxygen "Sauerstoff" - sour/acid stuff. But it's probably significant that the German and Finnish coinings happened when these countries were in the process of forging a separate national identity, which wasn't happening for Britain at the time when chemical names were being invented. Poul Anderson's essay "Uncleftish Beholding" ("Atomic Theory") has some very nice Anglo-Saxon terms we could have had, such as "waterstuff" for hydrogen, "sunstuff" for helium, "sourstuff" for oxygen, "coalstuff" for carbon, "chokestuff" for nitrogen ... and up to heavy elements named after Norse rather than Greek and Roman gods: "ymirstuff" (uranium), "aegirstuff" (neptunium) and "helstuff" (plutonium).

- Ray


  1. When I graduated High School, my grandparents gave me a much prized reference book, the nearly cubical "Handbook of Chemistry and Physics" for 1952, which [the book, not the year], delighted me by explaining that Nickel derived from the German and was named for the devil, 'Old Nick.' I visited the OED after reading your blog and found this etymology less than precise, but containing some truth in its essentials.

  2. Hello, Eric - nice to hear from you (I was looking at your Constance Savery site recently - you've done some serious work there).

    I was under the impression that - a pity! - the "devil" etymology for the word "nickel" is viewed as increasingly dubious. Looking at, the 1989 OED has "The second element in kupfernickel is app. G. nickel, dwarf, rascal, mischievous demon, the name being given to the ore because it actually yielded no copper in spite of its appearance", but the current new edition omits this.

    "Cobalt", on the other hand, seems to have solid etymological connection with "kobold".