We have two words Calypso, one being the name of a well-known female
figure from Greek mythology, and the other the term for a form of popular
Caribbean music. They obviously have no connection with one other – how could they?
Kalypsó, as she is known in Greek, was a nymph who was supposedly a daughter of Atlas, one of the Titans. Nymphs were a lower level of female divinity, usually associated with natural phenomena such as trees and water. They were not immortal but were extremely long-lived. According to Homer’s Odyssey, Calypso lived on the island of Ogygia, which some modern scholars have associated with the Greek island of Gavdos, the southernmost island of Europe, lying about 30 miles south of Crete in the Libyan Sea.
According to one interpretation of Homer’s text, after the Trojan War Calypso captured and raped the Greek hero Ulysses (in Greek, Odysseús) and compelled him to spend seven years with her on the island instead of continuing on his journey home to the island of Ithaca and his wife, Penelope.
Her Greek name, Kalypsó, may derive from the Greek verb kalýpto “to conceal”. Alternatively, it may come from Greek kalí “beautiful”, plus ópsi “sight”: there seems to be no doubt that Calypso was a very beautiful nymph.
The West Indian Calypso, on the other hand, is a style of African-Caribbean popular music originating in Trinidad. It has syncopated rhythms, and contains lyrics that are often subversive, passing comment on matters of topical political, social or sporting interest.
The famous Victory Calypso celebrating the West Indies’ win over England in 1950 begins: “Cricket lovely cricket, At Lord’s where I saw it; Yardley tried his best, But Goddard won the test. They gave the crowd plenty fun; second test and West Indies won. With those two little pals of mine, Ramadhin and Valentine”. Trinidadian Sonny Ramadhin (who died last year aged 92) and Alf
Valentine (from Jamaica) were the two spin bowlers who were far too good for the England batsmen.
This usage of the word Calypso for a musical genre first appeared in print in English in 1900. It is thought to be a variant of an Efik form, ka-iso!, which would be shouted out as a form of encouragement (perhaps to people dancing), meaning something like “Come on! Keep going!”
Efik is a west African language from the Benue-Congo branch of the Niger-Congo linguistic family and is spoken in Nigeria and Cameroon by about 700,000 mother-tongue speakers. We sadly understand only too well how an Efik word might have found its way to Trinidad, given that Nigeria and the Caribbean islands were at the opposite ends of the evil Atlantic slave trade.
But how did Efik ka-iso become Trinidadian kalipso? Where did the l and the p come from? The best guess of the experts is that it was simply a mistake. Classically educated Europeans, who knew far too little about west African languages and far too much about Ancient Greek, changed an unknown and (for them) unusually formed west African word into a more familiar shape, linking the names of the Greek nymph and the West Indian musical style.
So there really is a connection here between the two islands, Trinidad and Gavdos, but it is a connection totally based on a misapprehension.
Our words text, texture and textile are all etymologically linked. They come from Latin textus “fabric”, which is derived from the verb texere “to weave”. The idea is that a written text is something which a writer has produced by weaving words together into a coherent whole.