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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 Æolina, or Mund-Harmonica, published in New York in 1830, proudly boasts:

THE ÆOLINA 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 Æolus 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 Æolina has been derived.

The term "mouth harp" was already in use by this point. The previous year, an article in the Transactions of the Society of Arts, Manufactures and Commerce, dated February 24th 1829, mentions:

... that beautiful little toy now so familiar by the name of Eola (sic) or mouth-harp.

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 Aeolsharfe. This latter instrument was also known as Windharmonika, Windspiel 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, "Aeolsharfe" was more often used to mean the stringed Aeolian harp and "Windharmonika" was sometimes used to denote the reed organ or harmonium.)

According to folklorist Michael Licht in his article "America's Harp" (Folklife Center News Vol II Number 3),"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). According to the Dictionary of American Regional English this term was most popular in the West Midland, Texas and Central areas, with the term mouth harp being preferred in the Midland area. They also note the occasional use of the term breath harp in the South and South Midlands. Mouth organ is more common in the Northern Tier and Canada, with French speaking Canada often using the term musique à 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 (after sifting through many items clearly referring to stringed instruments from France), is in an ad in the Indiana State Sentinel from January 13, 1846:

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

fidil fhrancach (Gaelic for "French fiddle") - Ireland
huuliharppu ("lip harp") - Finland
munnharpa ("mouth harp") - Norway
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
ruine-babines ("ruins the lips") - French-speaking Canada
muzicuţă ("small music") - Romania
munnspill - Norway, munspel - Sweden (both meaning "mouth play")
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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