The word channel may have a secret back channel to a Semitic or Arabic root.
When it comes to Russia, Trump just can’t change the channel. The Washington Post reported last Friday that Jared Kushner, Trump’s son-in-law and close adviser, talked about setting up a secret back channel of communications with Russia this past December. As Washington adds this latest scandal to its Trump-Russia investigations, let’s channel the etymology of channel.
English sets up the word channel in the early 1300s. Back then, though, it didn’t refer to any line of communication, as channel originally named the “bed of a stream.” Metaphor quickly went to work: Later in the 1300s, channel was naming other waterways (think English Channel) as well as various tubular passageways for liquids. Come the mid-1500s, channels were flowing with information and news, hence diplomatic channels. The word lent itself to the circuits transmitting telegraphs in the 1840s, then to TV frequencies in the 1920s.
A back channel, meanwhile, first described a secondary channel of water in the 1740s, especially one that forms an island in a stream of river, according to the Oxford English Dictionary (OED). The OED cites a secret communications back channel by the 1960s, which expression appears to be an independent construction on the basis of official diplomatic channels.
Channel No. 5?
Via the Old French chanel, channel comes from the Latin canalis, used for various “conduits for water,” from drains and gutters to, like the early channel, beds of rivers. The ancient Romans, like modern English speakers, also extended canalis to other tube-like things, such as grooves in wood or stone or passages in the body.
As for that French chanel? Yes, apparently the French surname Chanel—as in the high fashion brand founded by Coco Chanel—originally referred to professional “pipe”-fitters.
Canalis, you may be noting, looks a lot like another channel-like waterway: canal. Indeed, channel and canal are what etymologists called doublets, two different forms of the same root, as we recently saw with scandal and slander. In the case of canal, English borrowed it directly from the Latin canalis in the early 1400s, clipping off the ending. A canal named a “pipe” or “tube” before it’s more familiar sense of a “man-made waterway,” attested in the late 1500s.
Working through the channels
Kushner may have been trying to establish back channel with Russia, but the word channel may ultimately have a back channel with Semitic or Arabic roots. Latin’s canalis is based on canna, a “reed” or “cane.” (Cane itself comes from canna, which also yields cannoli, cannon, canyon, and, possibly, caramel.) Latin, in turn, borrowed canna from the Greek kanna, which etymologists suspect is related to or from the Hebrew qaneh or Arabic qanah, also naming a “reed” or “cane.” Etymology, as ever, knows a thing or two about foreign affairs.
Reeds and canes are often hollow, hence their metaphorical application to all sorts of waterways, passageways, and tubes in Latin’s canna/canalis—and so, too, is the White House’s defense of Kushner’s reported back channel talks so far.