What's in a Word? Chapel

by John Bemelmans Marciano

Photo: Niko Salminem / Flickr

chap•el n. A place to get hitched.

Martin was a Roman army brat. Born in present-day Hungary, he got stationed in Gaul when he himself joined the legions as a teenager. One wintry morning at the gates of Amiens, Martin came across a shivering, half-clothed beggar. Unsheathing his sword, the young soldier sliced his cloak in half and gave one part to the grateful stranger. Martin went on to have a saint-worthy career that covered most of the fifth century, achieving fame as both an exemplary hermit and a charismatic traveling preacher-a rare combination-and helping to convert the pagan Gaulish countryside before settling down to become the bishop of Tours. For all his accomplishments, it was the tale of the cloak that attached itself to Saint Martin as the symbol of his piety, and the garment's remnants became a sacred relic of the early Frankish kings, who took it with them on military campaigns and swore oaths upon it before battle; it was quite the good luck charm, as the Franks embarked on a remarkable winning streak that culminated with Charlemagne's crowning as Holy Roman Emperor.

A traveling sanctuary held the cappella, as a cloak is called in Latin, and was attended by priest called the cappellanus. The fame of the cappella was such that it became synonymous with the term "sanctuary" in its sense of a place of worship outside of a proper church (or even within a church, in chapels located off the aisle). Chapel is the French descendant of Latin cappella (for the same reason a chat is a cat), while a cappellanus became a chaplain. English preserves the original Latin in the phrase a cappella, borrowed from the Italian alla cappella, meaning "in the manner of a chapel" as in to sing unaccompanied.

Cappella, incidentally, is derived from cappa, "a cape or hooded cloak." The Italians, connoisseurs of suffixes, add one to make it cappuccio, meaning hood, and a second for Cappuccino, which became the name of an order of monks who wore a distinctive sort of hood and who are better known in English as the Capuchins. It was another aspect of their robe-its color-that the mixture of espresso and frothed milk brought to mind, causing the name of Saint Francis's order to be lent to that best of all morning drinks, the cappuccino.

This entry is excerpted from Toponymity: An Atlas of Words, by John Bemelmans Marciano, and is reprinted here with permission.