Where does this wonderful word come from?
We asked the Italian Accademia della Crusca…
Vacation time, relaxation and spa. Many people wonder about the meaning of the word ‘spa’ that makes us all dream and reminds us of magical moments.
We asked the Accademia della Crusca about the origins of this marvellous word!
“Anyone who has ever been to a spa,” writes the Accademia della Crusca in response, “both hot springs and in the broader sense of a wellness centre (with or without a hot spring), has likely heard that the meaning of the word ‘spa’ comes from the Latin phrase salus (or sanitas) per aquam (or per aquas), i.e. ‘health through water’. According to this interpretation, ‘spa’ is an acronym, which is why it is often written in upper-case letters: SPA.
However, we must consider this fascinating etymological reconstruction a sort of popular etymology, i.e. a reconstruction of the history of a word: it starts with its current meaning to build a narration justifying it. Indeed, although the ancient Romans were known to be assiduous frequenters of baths, the expression is not found in the writings of Latin authors, despite it being formally correct and plausible. This means that it is a more recent invention: there are generally few ancient acronyms, although there are some exceptions. In this case, there are no examples of the word ‘spa’ in Italian books before the 2000s.
The GRADIT dictionary explains that the word entered the Italian language in 2003. The ZINGARELLI 2018, on the other hand, states that it was first used in 1995. The archives of the “Repubblica” newspaper show that it was first used in 1995, albeit with reference to a specific centre, the Spa’ Deus in Chianciano Terme (written with an apostrophe), while the term was not used as a common noun by the newspaper until 2000. These dates are also confirmed by research in the archives of the Italian “Corriere” newspaper, where the word begins to be used more frequently in the early 2000s.
The word is generally not present in Italian dictionaries of the 1990s (it appears in the ZINGARELLI dictionary for the first time in 2005), further testifying to the fact that it is a recent acquisition in Italian. Before that time, people simply went to hot springs or a wellness centre.
But where does this word really comes from? According to the ZINGARELLI and Devoto-Oli dictionaries, the term ‘spa’, which today refers to ‘hot springs’ or a ‘wellness centre’ in many languages, derives from a toponym: Spa, a Belgian town located in the Province of Liege with hot springs, that was already a resort in Roman times and became popular in the 15th century.
In English, ‘spa’ appears as a common noun and not a place name around 1620 with the meaning of ‘medicinal or mineral spring’ (see Online Etymology Dictionary; Merriam-Webster dates it back to 1610 and the Oxford English Dictionary, which records the word already in the 1913 edition, gives 1616). Here, it acquires the meaning of ‘A commercial establishment offering health and beauty treatment’ around 1960.
In other languages. ‘spa’ appeared in 1981 in French and the early 2000s in German. We can probably say with reasonable certainty that the move from the toponym to the common noun occurred in English, before expanding to other languages including Italian.”
In short, ‘spa’ is not a Latinism, as many may have been led to believe, but was acquired from English. And now, without further ado… whoever is able should unwind at a spa!