According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the word souvenir in English originally comes from French, where it has a long history. Appearing first in Old French around 1100 CE as suvenir, the word was used as a noun to mean “(something) in one’s memory.” That same century the word began to be used as a verb, meaning “to recall,” “to commit to memory,” and “to remind (someone of something).” The sense of the word as we normally use it today—as “something that serves as a reminder, memento”—appears later in French in 1676.
But the Old French word itself originally came from classical Latin, subvenīre, meaning “come to mind” (sub– up + venire come). I rather like this account of the word’s origin—“to come up,” “to come to mind”—because it succinctly conveys the spontaneous and unintended triggering of a specific memory bubbling up from the murky depths of our mind, which is how souvenirs are ultimately supposed to work.
The appearance of souvenir in English takes place much later. The earliest attribution of its use is by Horace Walpole in the postscript of his November 23, 1775 letter to the Countess of Upper Ossory where he uses it to mean “memories.” Not long afterward, the word appears in English in its more current usage (as a memento or keepsake usually associated with tourism) in a 1776 catalog of a jeweler and then more specifically in Travelling Anecdotes through Various Parts of Europe by James Douglas in 1782.
The majority of etymological references to the word in the Oxford English Dictionary, though, coalesce around the mid-nineteenth century and work up to the present, especially in the word’s appearance in compound words like souvenir shop, souvenir store, souvenir spoon, souvenir program, souvenir hunter, etc.
Why go through such a dull exercise of examining the etymology of the word souvenir? In this case, the etymology gives us a basic outline of the history of souvenirs themselves. For a word that today closely connects memory with a specific kind of material object associated with tourism, we see that its early use focused solely on memory and only later did the word become associated with objects. For historical purposes we might note that this linkage of memory, object, and tourism occurred in English during a time when modern-day tourism was beginning to develop in the latter half of the eighteenth century.
A glance at the etymological history of the word also reveals that souvenirs develop into an entire industry in the nineteenth century. We see terms for specific kinds of objects being created for a specific kind of store that serves a specific kind of market at a point when the industrial revolution is in full force and new modes of transportation are speeding up travel.
We would be naïve to think that using material objects to help us remember important events in our lives did not take place until the word entered the English language. The connection between memory and material objects within the context of tourism certainly has a longer and deeper history than the etymology of the word souvenir implies. So as we begin to look into the history of souvenirs we will first be looking back in time to examine similar practices when the word itself did not exist.
- Chambers Dictionary of Etymology. Ed. Robert K. Barnhart. London: Chambers, 1988.
- Oxford English Dictionary (online edition).