Vocab: All the Way to Timbuktu
Recent news out of Timbuktu regarding the burning of and saving of thousands of ancient books and manuscripts has me thinking of the relative size of the world and how the idiomatic Timbuktu came to represent some mystically distant place.
The etymology of Timbuktu, the name of the central Malian city on the River Niger on the south edge of the Sahara, is still disputed. Its origins could have been Songhay, Berber, or a Tuareg dialect. Use of Timbuktu as a metaphor for an impossibly remote, possibly mythical location, is a little clearer.
This idiomatic Timbuktu, a part of phrases like “it might as well be Timbuktu” or “all the way to Timbuktu” (as it is in Disney’s The AristoCats), is attested from the mid-19th century, but is part of an intercontinental history that goes back to the early 14th century. Mansa Musa, king of Mali, went on pilgrimage to Mecca then, liberally spending his gold and piquing interest in cities like Cairo along the way. Then, in the early 16th century, Pope Leo X freed Spanish Moor Leo Africanus and commissioned him to write of Africa, where he had studied and travelled before being captured and enslaved. Leo Africanus’s writing included accounts of Timbuktu, an important trading center, before it was sacked by invaders from Morocco toward the end of the 16th century. Eventually, his writings were translated and interested other Europeans, spurring them to discover the whereabouts of this city rich from the gold trade.
In the early 17th century, a London company attempted at least two unsuccessful expeditions. In the 18th century, the English African Association sent Scottish explorer Mungo Park to find the now fabled city. Though Park may have been successful, he died before he could return with news of his findings. A string of Europeans and Americans followed, with mixed success. By the time detailed accounts were made in the mid-19th century, the city was well past its prime, which perhaps contributed to its mythical status and spurred its use in metaphor.
Timbuktu no longer fit the part in tales of fabulous riches, but it has endured as a paragon of remote locales, less miserable than Siberia and much warmer than the Arctic. Far distant and unknown places are hard to come by in our shrinking world, but for purposes of metaphor, you couldn’t find a better one if you searched from here to Timbuktu.
Sources: About.com Geography, African Intellectual Heritage, American Heritage Dictionary, AristoCats script, Cities of the Middle East and North Africa, Collins Dictionary, Empires of Medieval West Africa, Online Etymology Dictionary, “Timbuktu: A Lesson in Underdevelopment” [pdf].