Q From Jim Veihdeffer: Having attended a flamenco show in Barcelona, my friends and I have been pondering the origin of the term. It appears from some desultory online research that there are several possible sources. A lot more explaining needs to be done before we’re convinced of any of them.
A You’re right to be sceptical. Etymologists have puzzled over the word ever since it first appeared in English in the 1880s. A number of theories have been put forward to fill the gap, most of which we can dismiss out of hand (for example, that the word may go back to the Moorish period and could be from the Andalusian Arabic fellah mengu, an escaped peasant).
English travellers to Spain in the nineteenth century had been bringing back descriptions of the wild music and dances of the Roma (gypsies) of Andalusia ever since Lord Byron went there in 1819, but none of them used the word flamenco. In The Zincali: an Account of the Gypsies of Spain of 1841, George Borrow called the dances Romalis, which is just Romany for gypsy dance; Richard Ford in 1845 commented in his travel guide Gatherings from Spain that the form was then called Ole by the Spanish. A book of 1995 about Silverio, the famous early populariser of flamenco, says that flamenco was first used in Spanish for the form in 1853. Before then, flamenco had many senses, which included petty criminal, smuggler, soldier, a type of knife, or a person who was irreverent and rebellious.
There are two other significant Spanish senses of flamenco. One is for the bird we call a flamingo, known from some southern parts of the country. The other is of a Fleming, a person who lives in Flanders, at one time a separate country but which is now divided between Belgium, France and the Netherlands (the Spanish word in this sense is from Middle Dutch Vlaminc, a Fleming.)
The flamingo sense has led some word hunters to equate the brightly coloured bird with the colourful dancers. One version of the story holds that at one time flamenco was used of the fair-skinned inhabitants of Flanders, who had flushed complexions, unlike the darker-hued Spanish, and that the word was transferred to the pink coloured flamingo. Nobody now believes any of this.
A direct Flemish connection is actually more plausible. From 1579 to 1700 Flanders was part of the Spanish Netherlands and Spanish fighting men were based there. This is why one sense of flamenco in Spanish is of a soldier. It has been suggested that some of them were Roma and that on their return to Spain they were given special dispensation to live where they wanted and take any occupation they liked, unlike other Roma, who continued to suffer severe legal restrictions. In consequence, some Roma families of Andalusia were given the title of los flamencos, the Flemish ones (George Borrow mentions this in Zincali) and the art form was taken from this.
Current dictionaries plump for the Fleming sense of flamenco as the origin, but have reservations about the reason for the link.