Did you know that the word “umbrella” doesn’t actually mean what you think it means? The term doesn’t even refer to rain but relates to the sun. So if that’s the case, how did the umbrella get its name?
The umbrella got its name from the Latin root “umbra”, which refers to shade or shadows. The first umbrellas, from Ancient Egypt, were made to block sun, not rain. China made umbrellas waterproof in the 11th century BC, but these weren’t popularized across Europe for its practicality until the 1500s.
The reason the word umbrella is connected to the sun, not rain, requires a bit of a history lesson. Keep reading to learn more about the umbrella’s past, its popularization, and why it’s a significant symbol across many cultures, religions, and classes.
Where Did the Word “Umbrella” Come From?
Like so many words in the English language, the term “umbrella” has Latin roots. The base word “umbra” refers to shadows or shade. Most of us associate umbrellas with rain and gloomy days, so this may be surprising at first. Sure, we may have sought shelter under a canopy at the beach or on a patio, but umbrellas were designed to block the rain.
Actually, no. The first umbrellas weren’t intended to provide rain protection at all. Instead, they were designed to deliver shade and provide some relief from the sun. The first instances of umbrellas were actually parasols. While the terms are commonly used interchangeably, a parasol protects one from sunlight, whereas an umbrella shields one from rain.
A Brief History of the Umbrella
Before the accessory was even named, Ancient Egyptians depicted parasols – the basis of the modern umbrella – in hieroglyphic paintings. Back in the 11th century BC, Chinese people were the first ones to waterproof the parasol, making it what it is today.
Umbrella usage also traces back to Ancient Rome and Greece throughout the first millennium BC. As the Roman Empire fell, umbrella usage did too, only being revived again in the late 1500s and early 1600s AD.
Depictions of Parasols in Ancient Egypt
The first designs of the modern umbrella had one significant difference: they weren’t waterproof. While this may seem like a huge oversight, think about this: Egypt is in the middle of a desert. Rain protection was not a pressing issue. Shelter from the sun, on the other hand, was, but more on that later.
The preliminary and most basic umbrella-like models consisted of the leaf of a palm tree fastened to a stick. Later, they came to be made of cloth and animal hides. Due to the high price and inaccessibility of source materials, parasols were privy to royalty, priests, and people of nobility.
Chinese Improvements Modernized the Umbrella
While the Egyptian desert doesn’t see much rain, the same can’t be said for China. As this Asian country sees a much wetter climate, the need for rain protection is much higher. This led to Chinese people creating waterproof umbrellas made of silk, leather, or wax-coated paper.
The styles of these two variations remained incredibly similar, but the waterproof trait added a practical aspect much more similar to our modern umbrella. Like in Egypt, umbrellas were quite expensive, so only upper-class people had access to them.
Though umbrellas were gaining traction in China, a lack of established trade routes meant the new waterproof design was not yet adopted by Europe. Instead, they maintained the use of parasols such as this modern-day vintage parasol on Amazon.
Ancient Greece and Rome: The Rollercoaster of Umbrellas
Greece and Rome have associated parasols with femininity. In the first millennium AD, this was not a great thing for the umbrella’s reputation. European men viewed the accessory as something that was below them. Well-off women allowed the parasol to survive and continued to keep it alive after the fall of the Roman Empire.
While the world seemed to be crumbling around them, the unnecessary parasol was of least concern to the people of Rome. It wasn’t until the Renaissance era that umbrellas came back into the mainstream – but still only for the upper class, of course. With trade routes finally being established to Asia, it became possible to import umbrellas that were actually waterproof. Read more about umbrellas and waterproofing here.
Still, umbrella usage remained strictly for women. That is until Jonas Hanway chose to carry the accessory in 18th century England publicly. He chose an umbrella that was more masculine in appearance: stronger and sturdier than that of most women.
The man was painfully shamed in the beginning, but the trend caught on by the end of the century. Soon, the whole male population of England followed suit, and the umbrella became a gender-neutral accessory.
Significance of the Umbrella
While the umbrella is most commonly used for practical reasons like keeping us dry or giving us shade, it also holds importance in a number of cultural and social areas around the world.
As I mentioned earlier, protection from the sun was an incredibly important issue for Ancient Egyptians. The religious significance of parasols here comes from the Egyptian goddess and god Nut and Shu. These two are known for forming the sky. Together, the way they lay resembles the shape of a parasol. Her arched body is the canopy while he represents the shaft.
Along with this, Egyptians believed that their restoration in the afterlife was highly linked to their relationships with the shadow. Lighter skin was desired at this time, as it was an indicator they had been untouched by the sun.
Since the parasol looked so similar to their god and goddess in the sky, plus their afterlives were dependent on shadows, the accessory was vital to their divine connections.
Buddhists also find great meaning in the umbrella. They believe that umbrellas are central to the universe while also representing spirituality and the Earth. Parasols are closely tied to this religion and are used in a number of important ceremonies. In fact, the name of the Buddhist goddess Sitapatra can even be translated to “the white umbrella.”
The breadth of umbrella symbolism in religion extends to Christianity as well. Traditionally, the umbraculum, or “big umbrella,” was used to provide the pope with shade on a daily basis. Nowadays, papal umbrellas are found specifically at basilicas and are opened when the pope visits the building. The particular colors on the umbraculums indicate the size of the given basilica.
A universal trend we’ve seen throughout the growth of umbrellas all over the world is that they began as an accessory solely for the upper class. Since their materials were expensive and difficult to source at the time, it was the royal, noble, or wealthy people who carried umbrellas.
As the parasol almost went extinct after the fall of the Roman Empire, rich women brought them back into fashion. If this had not happened, it’s possible that the umbrella may never have become as famous worldwide as it is. At least, it wouldn’t have happened so soon.
We can also thank the upper class for the umbrella’s hooked handle. This feature was added to the accessory so that servants could hold umbrellas at an appropriate angle over their employer’s heads. These days, we still see them being used by people serving us, such as valets or door attendants, though most of us don’t mind holding one with our own hands.
The word “umbrella” comes from the Latin root “umbra,” which means “shadows” or “shade.” Though typically used these days to shield us from rain, umbrellas were originally designed as means of sun protection. The first instances of umbrellas, or parasols, trace back to Ancient Egypt, but the more modern, waterproof version was first seen in China.
Beyond its functionality, umbrellas have a rich history and are infused with both religious and class significance. Next time you pop open an umbrella in a rainstorm, take a moment to appreciate Chinese innovation for a version of this accessory that keeps you dry.