Recently a student was trying to think of the word umbrella. They knew the French word (parapluie), but that didn’t help them to remember or figure out what the English word is. And as I thought about the word umbrella, I completely understood why: it actually has nothing to do with rain at all.
Parapluie is a fairly logical word: it literally means against rain (para, from Latin, meaning against, and pluie, meaning rain). Umbrella also has Latin origins, but has another meaning entirely. Umbra is the Latin word for shade, and umbella was a diminuitive form of the word. In the early 17th-century this was translated to ombrella in Italian, to refer to a small handheld object designed to provide the character with a little shade on hot summer days.
The umbrella soon became popular throughout Europe, and when it reached English-speaking shores, people quickly realised that it was very useful as a protection against the near-constant rain, while its function as a source of shade was required far less frequently than in Italy.
In time, umbrellas came to be associated mainly with protection against rain, but the name, with its origin meaning a little shade, stuck. Probably because, compared to other English words, it sounds unusual, which attracts us to it. And most English speakers wouldn’t be aware of, or think of, the word’s etymology anyway, and how it actually has nothing to do with rain. Heaven knows I never thought about it before Monday, and thinking too much about words is what I do.
And where would Rihanna have been if we’d gone with something more logical like pararain?