How Bordeaux Got Its Name

The old Port de Bordeaux|
The old Port de Bordeaux| | © Frédérc Alexianu/Wikimedia Commons
Jennifer Migan

The history of Bordeaux, the reigning city of the Nouvelle Aquitaine region is filled with mysteries, one of them being the origin of its name. Several theories exist and have divided historians for centuries, but keep reading to learn more about these different thoughts and beliefs.

The old Port de Bordeaux|

Though historians and etymologists disagree about the origin of the city’s name, they all seem to have found a consensus about its first occupants. The first habitants were the Bituriges Vivisci. From Celtic descent, they are described as ‘people living in the middle of a foreign population’ who gave the city its first name Burdigala. However, experts are not sure of the etymology of the word Burdigala.

Some argue that it came from the Basque language in which burd meant swamp and gala was the word used for shelter. At the time, the city was part of the Roman Empire and surrounded by muddy swamps—the overall dirty aspect and foul smell were the main characteristics of the town.

Others say that Burdigala was the combination of the Greek words burgo and galatico or, as the parliament king’s advisor claimed, the combination of the names of two small rivers, the Bourde and the Iale.

Each explanation was plausible, but it is impossible to confirm any of these theories.

Vestiges of the Roman influence in Bordeaux|

René Lafon, the famous 20th-century linguist and member of the prestigious Académie Française, argued that the name Burdigala most likely came from the Basque language. To support his claim, he used the thesis of German historian Karl Bouda who believed that Burdigala was a Basque idiom for ‘burdi(n)gala Eisenburg’, the ‘iron castle’. If burdin is clearly from the Basque origin, Lafon could not provide solid proof about the linkage between gala and the Basque language. With the years, the city changed its name several times, from Bordiaus to Bordèu. In Occitan Gascon, it was also called Bordale and finally Bordeaux, its current appellation.

With the awakening of the city’s economic and entrepreneurial scene coupled with its growing popularity as an international touristic hot spot, Bordeaux might soon lose its nickname of ‘the sleeping beauty’ and be renamed the ‘wide awake beauty’


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