Trombone Names Throughout History

Introduction

The trombone, an instrument that originated in the 15th century, has a long history of colorful names. What other single instrument can boast nomenclature as interesting and varied as sagbot, shagbolt, shagbutte, shackbut, seykebud, sacabutxo, busaun, busone, and trombonus tectonicus?

Historically, the three major names for the instrument, in probable chronological order, are posaune, trombone, and sackbut. Although these are not the only terms for the trombone, they are the primary ones. Their roots and many of their variants are shown below.

Posaune: Germany and German-Speaking Countries

The word Posaune (and its derivatives), probably the earliest of the terms for trombone, is a corruption of buzine, a word originally meaning a straight trumpet (Herbert 59).

Posaune and its variants: posaune, posaun, posaunn, pusaun, pusaune, busaun, and busone.

Virdung's Musica getutsht (1511), the first printed treatise on Western musical instruments, includes a woodcut of a trombone, labeled Busaun.
Virdung's Musica getutsht (1511), the first printed treatise on Western musical instruments, includes a woodcut of a trombone, labeled Busaun.

Trombone: Italy (and Eventually Most of Europe)

Chronologically, the next term for the instrument is probably trombone, an Italian word originally meaning large trumpet: tromba (trumpet) plus one (large) = trombone. Originating in Italy, it gradually spread to most of Europe. It eventually overtook other terms (especially sackbut and its variants; see below) and in modern parlance is by far the most common name for the instrument.

Trombone and its variants: trombone, trombono, trombon, tuba ductili…trombonus vulgo dictus, trombon grosso…che e tromba torta, trombonus tectonicus, tronbone, trompone, trompon, and trombone spezzata.

Trombone part from Giovanni Picchi's Sonata Decima Sesta (1625), labeled trombon.
Trombone part from Giovanni Picchi's Sonata Decima Sesta (1625), labeled trombon.

Sackbut: England, France, and Spain

The latest of the three major terms to come on the scene is also the only one no longer used for the modern instrument (posaune and trombone remaining in common parlance). However, it is also the most colorful term, with the most variants. Its origins are probably Spanish, sac being derived from sacar (to draw or pull) and bu from bucha, a corruption of the Latin boxus (both meaning a tube or pipe). It may also derive from the French saquier (to pull) and boter (to push), a less likely but more popular explanation (Herbert 57).

Sackbut and its variants: sackbut, saccabuche, sacabuche, sacque-boute, saqueboute, saqueboutte, sacqueboutte, sacquebute, sackbusshe, sacabuche, seykebud, sakbudd, sakbutt, sackbutt, sackebutt, sackbutte, sac-but, sacabutxo, cors de sabutte, sagbutt, sagbut, sacbut, saggebutte, shackbut, shagbutte, shagbutt, shakbush, shackebutt, shacke butte, shagbosh, sacbott, sackbott, sack-bott, sagbot, sackeboet, shagbolt.

Manuscript from Matthew Locke's Music for his Majestys Sagbutts and Cornetts (1661), probably written for the coronation of Charles II.
Manuscript from Matthew Locke's Music for his Majestys Sagbutts and Cornetts (1661), probably written for the coronation of Charles II.

Sources

All of the above terms, along with their sources, can be found in historical context in the Trombone History Timeline.

The other source that I refer to above is Trevor Herbert's The Trombone (Yale University Press, 2006). See especially his section on "Nomenclature" (pp. 56-60).

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