Strangely, Etymonline.com doesn't give an etymology.

I looked up Dictionary.com, and came up with:

1565–75; < Middle French hautbois, equivalent to haut high ( see haughty) + bois wood ( see bush1 )

So, how did this word "high wood" come to mean oboe?

up vote 3 down vote accepted

Explained on the oboe entry

[C18: via Italian oboe, phonetic approximation to French haut bois, literally: high wood (referring to its pitch)]

and etymonline

oboe 1724, from It. oboe, from M.Fr. hautbois (itself borrowed in English 16c. as hautboy), from haut "high, loud, high-pitched" + bois "wood" (see bush). So called because it had the highest register among woodwind instruments.

  • 2
    What @JoseK has not spelled out is that the French "bois", which is now pronounced "bwa", went through stages "bwi" and "bwe". "Haut" is still pronounced "o". So when "haut bois" was borrowed into Italian it was presumably "o bwe". – Colin Fine Jul 5 '11 at 13:36

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