It is becoming apparent that while some countries, like France and Greece, provide us with an embarrassment of linguistic riches, others have only a handful of etymological tales to tell. Bulgaria has seemingly afforded our language only one word out of the entire dictionary. The word in question is buggery.
Admittedly, to say that’s the only English word Bulgaria is etymologically responsible for is a little unfair. There is an old theory that buckram fabric takes its name from a mangled corruption of Bulgaria’s name. But that theory is fairly shaky, and the linguistic evidence to back it up is admittedly lacking. So, for want of a better expression, that leaves us with buggery.
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For any Bulgarians reading this, if it helps to remove some of the sting in this particular tail (so to speak), the word buggery hasn’t always meant, well, ‘buggery’. Back when it first appeared in the English language in the fourteenth century, bugger actually meant ‘heretic’, while buggery was merely a word for the most heinous or disreputable form of religious dissent. So when the English chronicler Robert Mannyng wrote in the 1330s that ‘the kyng said and did crie the Pope was heretike and lyved in bugerie’, he didn’t mean, well, ‘buggery’.
Etymologically, bugger developed from its Norman French equivalent bougre, which in turn comes from the Latin word Bulgarus, literally meaning ‘Bulgarian’. So how exactly did a word meaning ‘Bulgarian’ come to mean ‘religious heretic’? And, for that matter, ‘bugger’? Oddly, the missing link here is the name of an obscure religious sect, which swept across Europe in the late Middle Ages.
Founded by and named after a Bulgarian priest named Bogomil, Bogomilism was a radical religious movement that emerged in the Bulgarian empire sometime in the mid tenth century. The Bogomils, as its followers were known, spurned the sanctity of baptism and the Eucharist, rejected building churches and praying to crosses, and sought to reform and rebuild the newly established Bulgarian Orthodox Church.
The controversial movement proved popular, and spread quickly across southeast Europe, but that brought it into direct conflict with the Catholic Church. The Vatican dispatched missionaries to the Balkans in an attempt to hold this sweeping tide of Bogomilism at bay, but still it spread, steadily incorporating and allying itself with other radical sects and cults that popped up all across Europe at the time. To the Catholics, who were now facing a crisis on the eastern fringes of their influence, these dangerous religious upstarts all became disdainfully known by one single name, inspired by the Bogomils’ geographical origins: together, these troublesome heretics were the ‘Bulgarians’.
Because their teachings went against all those of the established Church (and perhaps partly in a propagandising attempt to whip up public hysteria against them), all manner of questionable practices soon began to be ascribed to these Bulgarians, regardless of whether they actually committed them or not. Among the charges laid at their collective door were sodomy, homosexuality and even bestiality; heresy and doctrinal sin had finally become conflated with sexual sin. Because of a handful of historical and etymological missteps, the
Bulgarians had finally become conflated with all the Catholic Church’s most heinous notions of sexual depravity.
Thankfully for Bulgaria, as the Church’s term-of-choice Bulgarian drifted from Latin into French and then English, its connection to its geographical meaning became obscured. The earliest reference to the crime of buggery in English law comes from a 1533 Act of Parliament, passed under Henry VIII, which outlaws and establishes punishments for the ‘vice of buggerie’ – by which time any obvious similarity to the name Bulgaria had clearly become watered down. Ultimately, the story of how one of Eastern Europe’s proudest, most resilient and most picturesque countries came to be associated with sexual misconduct has long since been relegated to the etymological footnotes.
The more likely origin of buckram lies almost 2,500 miles away in what is now Uzbekistan – but more on that later