From the 1400's to the 1700's, the Italian word viola was the general term for any stringed instrument played with a bow. Viola da braccio, or “arm viola,” was the generic name for any member of what we now call the modern violin family. And even though it was always played between the legs, the instrument we now call the cello was first called the basso di viola da braccio, or “bass arm viola.” The word cello, believe it or not, comes from an Italian word meaning “little big viola.”
In Italian, the suffix –one means big, and the suffix –ello means small. Violone, or “big viola,” was an early name for the double bass. But our friend the “bass arm viola” was smaller than the violone, so a diminutive had to be added, turning violone, the big viola, into violoncello, the little big viola. And in English, violoncello usually gets shortened… to cello.
A Minute with Miles – a production of South Carolina Public Radio, made possible by the J.M. Smith Corporation.