One of the inescapable realities of summer is that it is…well, hot. Yes, that same sweltering embrace that we were clamouring for in January has finally arrived, and, instead of basking in the heat joyfully, we – in one of life’s beautiful twists of fate – yearn to be cool again. And there are a number of steps we can take to stay cool, such as avoiding being in the sun during midday, dressing appropriately, staying hydrated, and using that quintessential warm-weather device designed for circulating the air and cooling us off (which also happens to be today’s word), the fan.
Originating as the Old English (West Saxon) fann, meaning ‘a basket or shovel for winnowing grain’, our word fan was initially derived from the Latin vannus, which essentially means ‘a winnowing basket’. For those unfamiliar, winnowing is a technique that involves using the wind to separate grain from chaff: the wind would blow off the lighter husk/chaff, leaving only the consumable grain. In fact, demonstrating the long relationship of our word with the process of wind winnowing, we can find it among the oldest of English words, appearing around 800 in the Corpus Glossary, which attempted to equate Latin terms with Old English equivalents, stating simply: “Vanna, fan.”
The first appearance of what we would consider to be a hand fan can be found through the efforts of Richard Eden, who, in 1555, translated the work of Peter Martyr of Angleria (an Italian historian in the service of Spain), The Decades of the New World or West India Containing the Navigations and Conquests of the Spaniards, where he mentioned: “A fan of gold, and an Idol.” Though this was the first mention in English, it should be unsurprising that hand fans have a substantial history long before 1555.
Going back (at least) as far as ancient Egypt 4 millennia ago, the fan was considered a sacred object, to be used by royalty and in religious ceremonies. From Egypt, the practice spread to the Hebrews, Persians, Greeks, and Romans, even being noted in the Bible. In a case of multiple discovery, the Chinese – no slouch when it comes to ancient civilization and inventing things – came up with the same idea a little bit later: their first fan, called the Shanhan and dated to the Shang Dynasty (>3,000 years ago), was used to shield carriage passengers from the weather, much like an umbrella.
Large ceremonial and carriage-based fans are nice, but they’re not very practical for individual use: sometime around 200BC, the Chinese realized this. According to legend, upon witnessing a woman fanning her face mask at a festival, an artisan was inspired to create a fan for individual use that could be folded up to travel more easily. When Europe and Asia met during the Age of Exploration and the hand fan was one of the “new” items brought back to Europe, it instantly became a hit with the affluent classes, which served to highlight the hand fan’s popularity overall as well as lead to the word’s repurposing based on its association with the concept of air movement.
Within another half century, the term was already being used in a general sense for “anything spread out in the shape of a fan” in Thomas Moffett’s 1599 work, The Silkworms and Their Flies, recounting: “Then fig-tree fans upon their shame they wore.”
As for the mechanical fans, such as ceiling fans, those in our air conditioners, or basic personal bladed fans, those are a mash-up that can be seen in the work of agriculturalist John Worlidge’s understanding of the word, writing in 1669 that: “A Fan is an instrument that by its motion artificially causeth Wind: useful in the Winnowing of Corn.” in his Systema Agriculturæ, and the British importation of a device developed in India around 500BC, called the punkah, which moved air through the circular motion of broad, flat pieces of bamboo or other plant fibre. This usage first appeared in Scottish physician and chemist Andrew Ure’s The Philosophy of Manufactures, which remarked in 1835 how: “The effect of one of Fairbairn and Lillie’s four-guinea fans upon a large factory is truly admirable.”
Regardless of what type of fan you choose to use during these sweltering months, here’s hoping that the effect of your fan will be “truly admirable” as well.