“Latin word for a tunnel, please!” said a colleague, looking up from a small group who were poring over some document at one of the coffee tables—probably some obscure word puzzle.

“Er… er…” I was making the usual head scratching gesture and realising in a flash that I didn’t know it—and that it was not waiting in the mental card-index, to pop up after a few minutes.

Worse still was the realisation that I couldn’t even guess at the origin of the English word tunnel, and I am one of those amateur philologists who hope that even my 14-year-old Latinists can spot the origin, roughly, of an English word, since they are taught to make the rough division of:

  • Anglo-Saxon or Norse (not easy to distinguish)
  • Latin, or Latin via French
  • Greek
  • Other.

“All right, the Greek then.”

This was more promising. If you can’t remember a Greek word, you can often coin it, and then check its existence in Liddell and Scott. Could it be κατωρύγμα?

I looked it up. The word is actually κατῶρυξ. I had seen it, in Antigone, line 774. It does not mean specifically a tunnel, but is generic for any man-made underground space.

The word in Classical Latin is cuniculum—a burrow, from cuniculus, a cony or rabbit. It is used by Caesar, Cicero and Livy, and here too it is generic, like the English word mine, for any space hollowed out by man, whether cavity or tunnel. In the Macedonian wars, Philip’s forces reached the inner wall of Abydos cuniculis—by tunnels. (Livy 31.17)

So, the English word should perhaps be cunicle, and indeed that word was used for a short time in the 17th century, but did not catch on: words like mine or gallery continued to be used.

Tunnel appears in the 15th century, deriving from the French tonneau, tonnelle (a cask or tun) and was developed in English to mean any tube, pipe, shaft, flue or opening. But tunnel in its modern sense, first recorded in 1765, seems to have been the coinage of Mr James Brindley, that mastermind of the English canal system as we know it. From the references in the OED, it was clearly a word that took a while to catch on; but a new word was needed for his remarkable feats of engineering: he revealed the possibilities of tunnels as canalways, and later for other forms of traffic.

The other European languages seem to have adopted this word, except Italian, which still uses galleria: a word of unknown origin, but used throughout Europe (including Germany) with an assortment of meanings.