Being mindful humans, we like to remember things, especially the big events in our lives. Whether it be a birth, death, marriage, christening, graduation, or even a special vacation, events that are important to us merit remembering. Though today’s word can be as simple as a memory, it’s most often associated with a specific physical item, like a concert programme, a miniature plastic Statue of Liberty, a cowboy hat or a t-shirt, but, for many people these items are almost as important as the event itself due to their symbolism. So, for today’s word, let’s have a look as those little interesting trinkets that we can’t live without (as they crowd or rooms/dressers/shelves/ and mantels), souvenirs.
Essentially meaning (and also evoking) ‘a remembrance or memory’, our word souvenir – as you could probably tell from the spelling – is French, coming directly as a loanword from the Old French souvenir, meaning ‘to remember or come to mind’, and actually originated as the Latin term subvenire, which literally means ‘to come up from below’ but can be understood as ‘remembering’.
While it has long been a human characteristic to mark and remember events or to have trinkets, mementos, and keepsakes to remind us of special moments, it may surprise you to learn that the first usage of the term in English only goes back about 250 years. The first mention can be found in a collection of Selected Letters (1857) by English novelist, historian, and politician Horace Walpole, where, using the term solely as a memory, he graciously writes in 1775: “You have always been so good to me, Madam, and I am so grateful that if my souvenirs were marked with cups, there would be many more than mile-stones from hence to Ampthill.”
Approximately a year later, we can see the first usage of the term to indicate a specific object that is kept as a reminder of a person, place or event, oddly found in an auction catalogue dated 1776 and entitled A Catalogue of the Genuine Stock in Trade of the Late Mr. John Frankland, which simply mentions: “A souvenir mounted in gold.”
The ending of the First Industrial Revolution and the advent of the Victorian era concept of leisure and the holiday in the 1840s meant that people could now take some time away from regular life to, well, go somewhere else and relax. Unsurprisingly, this also led to the application of our word in new ways. For example, a 20 January 1842 issue of the publication The Musical World uses our term as a verb to discuss the action of remembering a performance, recounting: “We were not hitherto aware that there was anything worth souveniring in Monpou’s wishy-washy opera.” A little over a year after this, the Philadelphia newspaper The North American and Daily Advertiser was the first publication that mentioned goods that were made specifically to be purchased as souvenirs, writing on 13 May, 1843 about: “Silk and shell souvenir card cases inlaid with pearl.”
Lastly, we have the introduction of the term defining those who devoutly search for souvenirs to buy (or take), souvenir hunters, first written of in the 15 November, 1862 weekly British political publication, The Spectator, which lamented that: “No sooner had the Exhibition been turned into a bazaar than this army of souvenir-hunters came flocking into the building.” Of course, in a more modern sense, a 2017 online poll showed that, on a typical Disney vacation, virtually everyone bought souvenirs in some form; moreover, 69% of people spent more than USD 50 per person, and 36% spent over USD 100 per person. Well, nobody said souvenirs- or hunting them- was for the faint of heart…. or the chronically cheap.