World word: soap

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Be sure to click on the map to embiggen it so that you can see all the connecting lines.  Click once to go the the original X-tweet and then click on the map there to make it full screen.

I noticed that the Taiwanese / Minnan word for "soap" is listed on the map as being derived from the same source.  Thinking that Chau Wu, a regular contributor to Language Log who is very good at such sleuthing, may have been responsible for this discovery, I wrote to him:

Were you the first person to recognize that Minnan sab4 bhung ultimately came from the Latin word for "soap"?

He replied:

Many people in Taiwan are aware that the Tw word for soap, sap-bûn/sat-bûn, is related to those of Romance languages. I recalled when I was an undergraduate student, I took the organic chemistry course. The professor was a Taiwanese but spoke with an impeccable Beijing accent. During his lectures on fats, fatty acids, and soap, he mentioned that the name for the chemical reaction saponification is derived from Latin sapon-, that the French word for soap is savon, and that in Taiwanese it is sap-bûn. I was greatly impressed.

So, as you can see, I was not the first one.


Middle English sope, from Old English sape "soap, salve," anciently a reddish hair dye used by Germanic warriors to give a frightening appearance, from Proto-Germanic *saipon "dripping thing, resin" (source also of Middle Low German sepe, West Frisian sjippe, Dutch zeep, Old High German seiffa, German seife "soap," Old High German seifar "foam," Old English sipian "to drip"), from PIE *soi-bon-, from root *seib- "to pour out, drip, trickle" (perhaps also the source also of Latin sebum "tallow, suet, grease").

Romans and Greeks used oil to cleanse the skin; the Romance words for "soap" (Italian sapone, French savon, Spanish jabon) are from Late Latin sapo "pomade for coloring the hair" (first mentioned in Pliny), which is a Germanic loan-word, as is Finnish saippua. The figurative meaning "flattery" is recorded from 1853.

Cf. sebacceous:

1728, "secreting sebum;" 1783, "pertaining to tallow or fat;" from Latin sebaceus "of tallow," from sebum "tallow, grease" (see sebum). Meaning "oily, greasy, fatty" is from 1783.


"a secretion of the sebaceous glands," 1728, from medical use of Latin sebum "sebum, suet, grease," which is perhaps related to sapo "soap" (see soap (n.)), but de Vaan is skeptical and gives it no etymology.

also from 1728

Wiktionary "soap"

From Middle English sope, sape, from Old English sāpe (soap, salve), from Proto-West Germanic *saipā, from Proto-Germanic *saipǭ, from Proto-Indo-European *seyb-, *seyp- (to pour out, drip, trickle, strain).

Cognate with Scots saip, sape (soap), Saterland Frisian Seepe (soap), West Frisian sjippe (soap), Dutch zeep (soap), German Low German Seep (soap), German Seife (soap), Danish sæbe (soap), Swedish såpa (soap), Norwegian Bokmål såpe (soap), Norwegian Nynorsk såpe (soap), Faroese sápa (soap), Icelandic sápa (soap). Related also to Old English sāp (amber, resin, pomade, unguent), Latin sēbum (tallow, fat, grease). See seep. Latin sāpō (soap) is a borrowing from the Germanic.

For the history, science, culture, and manufacture of soap, see this Wikipedia article.


Selected readings

[h.t. Geoff Wade]


  1. Rodger C said,

    June 24, 2024 @ 11:55 am

    Finnish saippua having been mentioned, let me recall the palindrome saippuakauppias 'soap merchant'–both etyma, along with their referents, being borrowed from Germanic, and the second one ultimately from Latin.

  2. Benjamin E. Orsatti said,

    June 24, 2024 @ 12:07 pm

    This makes me want to become a Sapir-Whorfian, so I could say things like: "The world was a horrible, soiled place, afflicted with the grime of barbarous peoples, who only knew cleanliness when it had been ever-so beneficently gifted them by my glorious ancestors, the Romans!"

  3. David B Solnit said,

    June 24, 2024 @ 2:39 pm

    See Bauer, Robert S. 1992. "*SOAP Rings the Globe." In *Linguistics of the Tibeto-Burman Area*, 15 , no. 1: 125-137.
    Available on

  4. Frank L Chance said,

    June 24, 2024 @ 3:15 pm

    Note that while the standard Japanese word for soap is sekken (石鹸)there is an alternative pronunciation シャボン shabon, normally written with katakana and presumably based on an imported word. My assumption was that the import was from French (savon) or Portuguese (sabão), but is it possible that the word and the product were transmitted from the southern islands before coming from Europe?

  5. Philip Anderson said,

    June 24, 2024 @ 3:47 pm

    Welsh ‘sebon’ ought to be related to Latin ‘sapon-‘ or OE sapé, but the first vowel is unexpected, and the earliest meaning is semen rather than soap:

  6. AntC said,

    June 24, 2024 @ 4:56 pm

    Many people in Taiwan are aware that the Tw word for soap, sap-bûn/sat-bûn, is related to those of Romance languages. …

    Japanese … alternative pronunciation シャボン shabon, normally written with katakana and presumably based on an imported word. My assumption was that the import was from French (savon) or Portuguese (sabão)

    And wiktionary 雪文 says general SEA Hokkien from Portuguese or via Malay.

    There's plenty of Portuguese-origin words in Taiwan, often shared with Japan. Bão = bun/bread, for example.

  7. Pamela said,

    June 24, 2024 @ 5:46 pm

    Wow. seep, sap, soap, sop. who'd a thought?

  8. KIRINPUTRA said,

    June 24, 2024 @ 10:36 pm

    Esperanto got attention in Formosa around the 1920s, so awareness of SAP-BÛN’s French cognate probably goes back at least that far. But the upwardly-mobile old husbands have struggled till now to accept that SAP-BÛN is a Malay loan (as the map does show).

    What’s interesting is that N. Vietnamese XÀ PHÒNG is an honest-to-God French loan, while S. Vietnamese XÀ BÔNG is an older loan from Portuguese or poss. Malay. Loans tell us a lot!

  9. Chris Partridge said,

    June 25, 2024 @ 2:24 am

    There's no timeline which is a shame. I can't help noticing that soap words spread from Latin to Arabic, Portuguese, Spanish, French and English, then spreading out from them to their empires. Did soap conquer the world through Imperialism?

  10. Lasius said,

    June 25, 2024 @ 4:14 am

    @Chris Partridge

    The Germanic languages like English inherited their soap words from their ancestral languages, not via a loan from Latin or Romance languages.

  11. Chris.button said,

    June 25, 2024 @ 6:48 am

    Note that while the standard Japanese word for soap is sekken (石鹸)there is an alternative pronunciation シャボン shabon, normally written with katakana and presumably based on an imported word. My assumption was that the import was from French (savon) or Portuguese (sabão)

    Interesting that "shabon" has an alternate "sabon" too (although I recall "sekken" being the more common term too). The "sabon" form makes more sense from Portuguese, so where did the "sh" come from?

  12. Philip Anderson said,

    June 25, 2024 @ 7:20 am

    @Chris Partridge
    Like a number of other words, the words for ’soap’ spread with the item, and while some transmissions were inheritance or ‘imperial’ others were not , including the most significant one, from a Germanic language to Latin. Nor was the one from Romance to Arabic, which took it into Asia and East Africa.
    Wiktionary says that Latin took it from Frankish, but Pliny (who described it as a Gaulish invention) and Martial used it long before the Franks emerged as a people:
    I would guess that the Gauls got both the substance and the word from the Germans, and then the Romans from the Gauls with whom they had more contact. But that raises the possibility that the Insular Celtic languages got their words from Gaul too, rather than Latin.

  13. KeithB said,

    June 25, 2024 @ 7:43 am

    Will Jared Diamond need a new edition?
    Guns, Germs, Steel and Soap?

  14. Kim said,

    June 25, 2024 @ 4:40 pm

    I'm curious about, and skeptical about frankly, how it was determined that Tuvan got saponified from Uzbek while Buryat and 'Mongolian' did from… Georgian? Armenian?

  15. ouen said,

    June 27, 2024 @ 2:21 am

    according to the Taiwan's MoE dictionary, 雪文 is a loan from French, which I find a bit hard to believe. As many people have said, it’s easier to believe that it comes from Malay or Portuguese.

    Before seeing this on Language Log I saw the same map posted on Facebook. There were some angry commenters from various regions who could not believe that the word was ultimately of Germanic origin. Most of the commenters insisted the word was ultimately of Arabic origin, and some insisted on Latin. From the perspective of folk linguistics/language ideology is not that surprising that the origin of this word would elicit such strong reactions. Cleanliness/purity has always been central to how different cultures demarcate the ‘civilised’ from the ‘uncivilised’. Some people mistakingly assumed that the map shows that soap itself was introduced to the world by Germanic peoples.

    As far as I know, 雪文 is no longer the most widely used word for soap in Taiwanese. I’m not a native speaker, but I think 茶箍 is more widely used. I also think that maybe each of these words have undergone a process of linguistic narrowing and now refer to specific types of soap, but I’m not totally sure if that’s the case for both of these terms or just one of them

  16. Jonathan Smith said,

    June 28, 2024 @ 9:20 am

    I think Tw. tê-kho͘ 茶箍 is (originally) like cha2zi3bing3 茶籽餅, that is cleansing-cake made from compressing dregs left over from tea-seed-oil pressing. Not sure if only southern Chinese or more wide-spread… internet says the seeds involved are generally Camellia oleifera. This kind of product/name of course speaks more to local history/culture than does the colonial-era import/name

    Re: map, the idea that an item '(hair-coloring) resin; pomade' in Germanic and loan thereof in early Romance developed separately into modern 'toilet soap' in both sounds sketchy. Also not sure how sapone, savon, jabon… can be from "Late Latin sapo" exactly… this narrative may need a scrub behind the ears.

  17. Philip Anderson said,

    June 29, 2024 @ 4:38 pm

    @Jonathan Smith
    Etymonline is talking rubbish when it says “from Late Latin sapo … first mentioned in Pliny”; Pliny wrote in the first century AD/CE, which is hardly Late Latin.
    For the same reason, it’s impossible that it came from Frankish – unless the person responsible for that claim actually meant Gaulish, which IMO is a plausible intermediary from some early Germanic language.

  18. Christopher Sundita said,

    June 30, 2024 @ 7:48 pm

    Where did the Formosan languages and Min Nan get their word for soap from? Could it have been from Spain or trade with the Philippines?

  19. KIRINPUTRA said,

    July 2, 2024 @ 3:09 am

    @ ouen

    Right — no way SAP-BÛN is from French. That assumption is widespread, though — based mostly, probably, by this time, on a vague belief that French culture is the pinnacle of civilization & class.

    The people in charge of the Repub. of China (we wish it was Taiwan!) government dictionary are no doubt made aware of the mistake (& many others) from time to time. See “關係教典三个外來語詞雪文、咖哩、咖啡佮借詞體例” ( by Mr. Phoaⁿ Kho Goân 潘科元. But there is a firm no-edit policy in place.

    Do you live mid-island, BTW? TÊ-KHO͘ 茶篐 (with a 木, in traditional Formosan usage) is a mid-island word. In the North & South, it’s always SAP-BÛN.

  20. KIRINPUTRA said,

    July 2, 2024 @ 3:13 am

    @ Christopher Sundita

    Intriguing possibility, also mentioned in the (unfortunately monolingual) Tâi-jī Chhân 台字田. The (not so) “conventional” wisdom that SAP-BÛN is a Malay loan is probably based on there being a lot more Malay than Philippine loans in Taioanese & esp. Hokkien.

    Interestingly, soap is not mentioned in the CHHIAN-KIM-PHÓ͘ 千金譜, which predates the mid-1800s opening of the ports. In the 1860s, four Formosan ports — two in the North and two in the South — were opened to foreign trade. This coincides with the distribution of SAP-BÛN vs TÊ-KHO͘ (referring to my last comment) today — not to downplay any continental factors.

    The 1883 Duffus dictionary (English-Teochew) gives six words for “soap”, incl. TÊ-CHÍ-KHOU 茶子篐, but not *SAP-BÛN. This is mildly consistent with a Philippine source for Hokkien SAP-BÛN.

    What’s your opinion on the direct source of Tagalog SABON & Pampango SABUN? Are they loans from Malay, or from some archaic form of Spanish?

  21. Christopher Sundita said,

    July 4, 2024 @ 3:26 am


    It's pretty much widely accepted that Tagalog, Kapampangan, and other Philippine languages did get their words for soap from Spanish "jabón".

    Note that at the onset of the Spanish colonization of the Philippines, the ⟨j⟩ in "jabón" was pronounced [ʃ] . During this time, Spanish loanwords with [ʃ] became [s] in Philippine languages. In Tagalog, for example Spanish "jugar" & "reloj" became "sugal" and "relos".

    I was surprised to learn that some Formosan languages imported the Spanish word "peso" as a word for money. I guess it made sense given the history.

    I'm curious to know how Malay words ended up in Taiwanese.

  22. KIRINPUTRA said,

    July 12, 2024 @ 10:02 am

    @ Christopher Sundita

    Re: Spanish loans in Formosan languages, do you recommend any particular sources?

    (The Malay loans in Taioanese go back to a time when Taioanese was sociolinguistically still more or less part of Hokkien, and … metropolitan) Hokkien-Teochew & Malay were intensely in contact from the 1600s (or earlier) through c. WW2 — due to Hokkien-Teochew trade & settlement in primary Malay-speaking regions, but also b/c of Malay's role as lingua franca & trade koine throughout much of maritime S.E. Asia, notably in Java. To illustrate this point by pivoting off it: Even Saigon Cantonese uses 鐳 LEOI¹ for MONEY, from Malay DUIT, poss. via Hokkien-Teochew.

    Amoy & Quemoy 金門 Hokkien & certain dialects of Teochew (Swatow?) seem to have been most intensely in contact with Malay. They carry Malay loans that never stuck in Formosa (some probably more recent, i.e. early 20th cen.).

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