Identity Politics, Lexicography, and the Etymology of Tango-Una Vez Mas

By Sayers, William | Romance Notes, May 2013 | Go to article overview

Identity Politics, Lexicography, and the Etymology of Tango-Una Vez Mas


Sayers, William, Romance Notes


The tango rioplatense emerged in the late nineteenth century in the wake of substantial immigration from Europe that began in the 1880s. Gypsy (Calo) musicians and performers in Buenos Aires and Montevideo adapted European couple dancing, as exemplified in the polka, but added their own flair. They gave the music and dance style a term borrowed from one of many immigrant communities, which was then accommodated in the linguistic tradition of the Calo by the addition of the Romani agent suffix -ko: thus, German Tanz 'dance' + ko > *tanzko > tango, orginally 'dancer', then the dance itself.

This is not one of the many current explanations of the name tango but why should it be dismissed out of hand? The bandoneon is a German invention, the accompanying musical instruments, piano and flute, like couple dancing and the basic steps, all point to Europe. Calo musicians could well have been prominent in the restaurants, night clubs, and dance halls where the tango flourished. A convert to this etymology could doubtless find additional justifications. Still, no full defence of this etymology will actually be mounted here, for the objective evidence does not support such an economical derivation. Rather, attention is drawn to the fact that the avenues of research that *Tanz-ko represents--Europe, its major and marginalized communities--have been explored in neither academic nor popular etymologizing about tango, most plausibly, it is suggested, as a consequence of identity politics in Argentina. The derivation whimsically offered above fails to satisfy, is even unacceptable, for reasons other than those of professional lexicography or historical linguistics not simply because it represents a simple fusion (in the clubs and in lexis), rather than a farther-reaching synthesis, but also because it has no emotional appeal, no relevance and consonance in the greater context of Argentinian popular culture and nationalism. The nurture of national identity even unconsciously shapes the academic agenda, as will be discussed in the following, in tandem with the determination of a linguistic filiation for the word tango that goes back in place and time well beyond the Argentina of the 1880s.

Uncritical listings of popular and more learned etymologies for tango abound on the Internet. (1) A philologically more qualified treatment, which also summarizes the history of scholarship on this fraught word, is found in William W. Megenney's study from 2003. Conclusions are cautious and may reflect a degree of political correctness: 'It seems, then, that the word tango as used today in the Rio de la Plata, has an elusive etymology. Perhaps if we attempt to scrutinize its social origins as a part of its hybrid character, we will be able to unravel some of the knots of its history'. (2) Disregarding, for the moment, the merits of individual derivations as listed individually by Megenney, these sources for tango can be grouped in four categories, in order both of increasing complexity and of increasing compatibility with the myth of Argentine national origins: 1) non-Romance European languages (e.g., possible analogues in German Tingel-Tangel 'cabaret dancing'), 2) Latin and non-Iberian Romance (Latin tango 'I touch', Norman French tangue, apparently a medieval dance form, 3) Iberian: Portuguese tanger 'to play a musical instrument', various terms in regional varieties of Spanish (as in el tango andaluz), 4) West and Central African languages as carried to Latin America by slaves. When all other explanations of origin fail, lexicographers may invoke 'onomatopoeic invention'. (3) In the fourth category, African, it is variously claimed that the terms in question originally designated a musical instrument such as a drum (tambor > tambo > tango), an enclosed locale for communal dancing (tango), a festival (tanga), and were only subsequently transferred to the dance itself. Convincing to varying degrees, these explanations can never be more than highly qualified guesswork, due to the many breaks in the putative chain of association and transfer. …

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