You hear it when you board a plane in France: “C’est interdit de fumer”. You use the word when you have to take care of the bug problem in your house and need to fumigate. You can see it on bilingual signs: “No fumar”. Who would have known that this word has its origins in ancient Greek? And this isn’t your typical ancient Greek word.
We’re talking about smoke, smoking, and fumes. Our word for fumes and fumigation comes from the old French verb fumer (to smoke) which has its origins in the Latin word fumus or the Latin verb fumare, meaning to smoke. So where did Latin get their word for smoke?
Like many Latin words, these spawned from Greek with the word θυμος (thumos). However, thumos does not mean fumes or smoke like we would hope. In fact, many of our modern translations give us something totally different. Today, θυμος is translated as “the soul” or something along the lines of the “breathe of life”. How did a word meaning soul end up meaning smoke in basically every single Romance Language out there? The truth can be found in philosophy.
The Greeks believed that their soul was a smoke or a breath that floated within their body. We have images given by ancient philosophers who describe the soul dispersing as a smoke would. Okay now this makes sense. However, there is another quirk in the story.
By the time of Classical Greece, the word meaning “to sacrifice” was the Greek verb θυω (thuo). Would you be surprised if I said that this is related to θυμος and is therefore another etymology for Latin’s fumus? So, let me get this straight! Fumus comes from the Greek words for both soul and sacrifice? How confusing huh?
Well, when Classicists study the origins of θυω. they have discovered that the Greeks are not talking about any regular sacrifice. In fact, θυω is meant to describe any sacrifice that is specifically done by cremation. So that makes sense, right? They were releasing their souls through fire, creating smoke. Finally it makes sense, huh!
So let’s see what we have learned so far: the English word for fumes and the origin of the word to smoke in Romance Languages comes from the ancient Greek words for soul and sacrifice? To a point, yes. Now let’s just take a moment and look at the beauty of this situation. When we smoke, are we not somewhat sacrificing our health for a few moments of relief. And who said linguistics couldn’t be poetic?
However, our story does not end there.
The Greek words θυμος and θυω have an even deeper etymology, one that takes us back to Homeric times.
Take this text from the Illiad (24.221):
η οι μαντιες εισι θυοσκοοι η ιερηες…
Translit: é hoi mantiès eisi thuoskooi é hierees
This text translates to be roughly “Either those who are thuoskooi or priests”. The term thuoskooi is often translated to mean “offering watchers” and is built from two roots: θυος (thuos) and σκοοι meaning “watchers” or “seers”. Θυος is directly related to the later Greek words θυμος (thumos) and θυω (thuo). However in Homeric times, θυος meant offerings and cleansing. Then how did it come to mean smoke?
Offerings, as well as cleansing, in and around Homeric times was meant to be done through incense. That means that these θυοσκοοι would actually have been incense watchers. So in a roundabout kind of way, smoking came to be known as smoking. Fumigate, fumes, fumer, fumar, and fumus all come from a Greek word that went from meaning incense burning/smoking to meaning sacrificing and the soul to becoming smoke once again. Who would’ve thought such a simple word could have such a diverse and varied history?