I’ll drink to that, whatever it is.
Dear Word Detective: What is the origin of the word “spa”? Today’s Los Angeles Times claims that Wikipedia says this is a “backronym” and that the word actually comes from the Belgian town of Spa, a famous bath location in Roman times, whose name may have come from the Latin word “spagere” meaning “to scatter, sprinkle or moisten.” Yet another site claims that the modern word “spa” found its way into the English language through the old Walloon word “espa,” which referred to a fountain and that from “espa,” the English derived “spaw.” Can you possibly “spawn” a coherent theory from all this? — Jackie.
Wow. There’s a lot going on in that question. Among other things, it sounds like the LA Times is now using Wikipedia as a source, which is worrisome news for those of us who enjoy finding actual facts in our newspapers. On the other hand, given the spavined state of print journalism these days, the Times newsroom may now consist of little more than three lonely schmucks and an internet terminal.
I’ve never been entirely clear on exactly what a “spa” is, and it turns out to be a word with many meanings already and probably new ones coined weekly. As a child, I associated “spa” with ritzy resorts in Europe, the sort of place dissolute Hollywood stars would go to relax and flop around in mud baths. At some point, I gathered that such places usually involved a spring or well offering mineral water claimed to have medicinal benefits. In the 1970s, however, the then-new “hot tub” was often advertised as a “home spa,” which struck me as equivalent to naming a basset hound “Secretariat.” And today, the category seems to have collapsed completely, with strip malls in the US offering storefront “spas” that seem little more than glitzed-up beauty parlors.
Wikipedia is famously undiscriminating and credulous when it comes to word origins, and their entry on “spa” is no exception. Just for starters, the Latin word for “to sprinkle” is “spargere” (which gave us the English “sparse”), not “spagere.” But, oddly enough, the very first line of their entry, before they start entertaining silly theories, is correct. The word “spa” is derived from the town of Spa in Belgium, celebrated for its medicinal spring waters since the Middle Ages.
Pilgrimages to Spa to drink the waters were so popular in Europe that by the early 17th century “spa” was being applied to any place where such a medicinal spring was located and marketed to tourists. At some point, it was decided that soaking in such waters was also beneficial, so “spa” came to mean anyplace that featured heated baths, as well as, eventually, backyard hot tubs. By the 1960s, “spa” had expanded, especially in the US, to include health clubs featuring steam rooms and exercise equipment. In certain parts of New England, in fact, “spa” is used as another name for “soda fountain.”