On Hawaii’s Big Island, the Kilauea volcano has been erupting for weeks, its lava consuming whole cars, roads, and homes as it generates deadly vog and laze and heaves lava bombs. More alarms were raised this week as the lava’s molten march risked explosions at a geothermal power station.
But for such a fiery phenomenon, the origin of the word lava is, perhaps ironically, in the wash.
Fire and rain…and lava and avalanches
Evidenced in the 1750s, lava is a borrowing from Italian. In the language, the term originally signified a “torrent” or “stream” caused by a sudden downpour, said to have been applied in Neapolitan dialect to molten rock spewing from the notorious Vesuvius.
The Italian lava is usually derived from the Latin lavare, “to wash,” source of English words ranging from ablution, effluvium, deluge, and dilute to latrine, launder, lavatory, and lotion. Lavish, too, comes from lavare. Indo-European scholars connect Latin’s lavare to the Old English roots of lather and lye.
There are others theories, though, outside the etymological washroom. Ernest Klein suggests the Latin labes, a “falling,” from labi, “to slip” or “slide,” producing such derivatives as lapse and its prefixed family (e.g., elapse, collapse). Some even think this labi also yields another term for a force of nature, the Swiss-French avalanche.
Robert Barnhart, though, raises the possibility that both lava and avalanche may have come down from pre-Indo-European languages.
Whether lavare or labi or something long lost, the original “watery rush” of Italian’s lava has a singeing irony for a word we now associate with unquenchable belly-fire of the earth, whose wake is destruction and hard, black rock. Metaphor gives no mind to irony, though, and we’ve seen it before on the blog: The word torrent literally means “burning.”
Given their etymologies, maybe we should swap torrent and lava. Or, as geologists do, perhaps we should stick with a native Hawaiian term, a’a, for Kilauea’s basaltic lava flow, among others. The word not only renders some small indigenous justice, but, as a sound, it captures that terror and marvel—that sublime awesomeness of lava.
A fellow linguaphile and native Italian speaker, Licia Corbolante (@terminologia), informed me on Twitter that Italian dictionaries, while noting the origin is uncertain, favor the labi etymology: