Word Count: 526
A lot of people misjudge why I married my wife, thinking it’s more about her looks than her personality, but one reason why I love her so much is that she already speaks, reads, and writes four languages fluently. Holy Smokes! Right now she’s learning (modern) Greek, and it’s thanks to her that I finally got the answer to a mystery concerning the Romanian language.
Depending on which Romanian-speaker you ask, the word for towel is either prosop (pro-soap) or ștergar (shtair-garr). I learned the first word in Cluj, but the second is far more common here in Chisinau.
The word ștergar makes sense, sort of, as it comes from the verb a șterge, meaning “to wipe” or “to erase”. Thus, windshield (UK: windscreen) wipers are called ștergatoare in Romanian. So it kind of makes sense that a towel would be “wiper” in the literal sense, as people use it to wipe away moisture.
But until my wife explained the etymology to me, the word prosop never made any sense. You can tell, just by looking at it, that it’s neither Latin or Slavic. Now I know that it comes from the Greek word for face (πρόσωπο – prosopo). That leaves me to surmise that the first time some Romanians saw a towel was when Greeks were using one to wash their face.
Interestingly enough, the English word “towel” comes right from the German, from an old root for the verb “to wash”. Spanish and Italian people must’ve similarly learned about towels from foreign visitors, as they too use the German word (toalla in Spanish, tovaglia in Italian).
Even more interesting is the fact that, while the Ancient Romans loved taking public baths, they didn’t use towels. Instead, they had a slave use a device called a strigil to sort of “comb” off moisture, dirt, and sweat. The Ancient Greeks likewise didn’t use towels, preferring a strigil type device as well. So who invented the towel, and why did modern Greeks start adopting it, importing the custom to Romania (probably around the 18th century)?
The answer, like many things, is that towels were developed by the Turks (who also brought the world tea and coffee). The Ottoman Empire loved public baths as much (or more) than the Ancient Romans did, and had the benefit of the right climate and culture for growing and weaving cloth fabrics. Starting with the peshtamel, and then developing the “havlu” style of weaving (those little “loops” in the fabric of modern terrycloth) the Turks rapidly figured out what the entire modern world knows today – it feels darn good to dry off with a towel.
The Greeks then rose to power in the Ottoman Empire, became the ruling class of Wallachia and parts of Moldova, and along the way, the word for “face” (prosop) became the local Romanian word for towel. In the eastern parts of Romanian lands, the locals just coined a word by what the towel did – wiped off your body. Thusly, it came to be that the Romanian language has two totally different words for the same thing.
AND NOW YOU KNOW!