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Why is it called a harp?

(From an 1895 Montgomery Ward Catalog)

In many parts of the American South, the harmonica was popularly called mouth harp, French harp or just plain harp, a term now used by blues harmonica players the world over. The term is partly inspired by the Aeolian harp, a stringed instrument that is left outdoors to be played by the wind, whose name was taken from Aeolus, the god of the wind. Early names for the harmonica were Aeolina, Aeolian and Mund-Aeoline, which stressed this link with the Aeolian harp. As the earliest harmonica-like instruments were little more than a few reeds attached to a reedplate that was held to the players lips, the resemblance to a harp was quite pronounced. The introduction to Instructions for the Ćolina, or Mund-Harmonica, published in New York in 1830 proudly boasts:

THE ĆOLINA from the originality of its construction and the beauty of its effects, is a decided novelty in the musical art; the expressive sweetness of its tones, the richness of the harmonies it renders, and the contrasts of its exulting swells and dying cadences, realize the poetical descriptions of the harp of Ćolus and greatly surpass its practical results; while the regularity of its scale gives it advantages of the most important kind, which that instrument does not possess. From the close resemblance of its tones to those of this harp of the winds and from the analogous circumstances under which the sound is produced in both instances, the name of the Ćolina has been derived.

The word harp has been used to describe many instruments other than the stringed harp, including the Jew's Harp (also called Jaw Harp or Mouth Harp and often known in some parts of Germany by the name Mundharmonika) and the Aeols Harfe. This latter instrument was also known as Windharmonika or Aeolsharmonika and was a funnel-shaped device which was mounted on tops of houses in 19th century Germany, directed the wind though a set of free reeds tuned to produce a chord. Here is an illustration of one from a 1914 catalog of the Koch harmonica company:

They are still being made - see here. (Just to add to the confusion, "Aeols Harfe" was more frequently used to mean the stringed Aeolian harp and "Windharmonica" was often used to denote the reed organ or harmonium.)

According to folklorist Michael Licht, "French" was often used in the US South to mean "European" and thus to imply sophistication, so although harmonicas were mostly made in Germany and Austria, they wound up being called French Harps (compare with the Irish Gaelic term below). This term was most popular in the South, with the term mouth harp being preferred in the "Midland" area (Indiana, Ohio and Illinois) and mouth organ in the Northern tier and Canada, with French speaking Canada often using the term musique ŕ bouche.

The term French harp was already well established by the time the Carl Essbach company made their French Harp models pictured at the top of this page. By 1890, the American Dialect Society was using the question "Do you say 'harmonica' 'mouth organ', or 'French harp'?" to help localise where someone learned their language skills (ref. Dialect Notes Vol. 1, Officers of the American Dialect Society). The earliest published usage that I have so far discovered was in a poem by Emily Thornton Charles (AKA Emily Hawthorne) entitled Christmas Dreams. Published in 1876, it includes the following stanza:

And sturdy Nat to his dear mother flew:
"Just see my book and a nice new hat, And mittens, and boots, and a French harp, too!
So much I did wish he would bring me that!
But I wonder how Santa knew?"

In other parts of the world, the harmonica is known as:

fidil fhrancach (Gaelic for "French fiddle") - Ireland
moothie - Scotland
gaita (also used to refer to bagpipes and various other instruments) - various Spanish/Portuguese-speaking countries
fotzhobel (literally "mouth plane", also used to denote the panpipes) - various German-speaking countries
muzicuta- Romania
ruine-babines ("ruins the lips") - France
Mississippi saxophone, Louisiana saxophone - various parts of the USA
harpoon - various parts of the USA
gob iron - various parts of the UK
tin sandwich - widespread


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