Having been among the fortunate who went to the sold-out Noche Flamenco performance at UNC in November, I was a little depressed that the only words I could pull out of the amazing songs sung by the amazing singers were corazon and olé. But it did make me curious about the latter word. Google found the following on Altalang
, based on writings of Elizabeth Gilbert.
Before the modern humanist era, creative genius was not attributed to individual people, but to inspiration from the spirit world: daemons in ancient Greece, muses, genies, and, as is made evident in the etymology of the Spanish word Olé, even Allah.
The Moors of Northern Africa ruled the area of the Iberian peninsula known as Spain for nearly 700 years. Their language was Arabic, and no language other than Latin had a more profound effect on the history and evolution of Spanish. Today, over 4000 Spanish words come directly from Arabic, nearly 8% of the Spanish lexicon. One of those words is Olé.
As Gilbert explains in the lecture, there existed an ancient tradition among many Moors to have great celebrations that included dancing. When a dancer performed at the highest levels of grace and intensity, for that moment, they were believed to be vessels through which Allah was acting, and the moment allowed the witnesses to see a glimpse of Allah's power through the artist. So, it was customary for the Moors of Northern Africa centuries ago to exclaim Allah! when a dancer was performing in such an inspired and moving way.
Somewhere along the course of its long history in Spain, the word Olé lost its connection to Allah, and became a common Spanish exclamation for any situation where human physicality inspires people to cheer, whether it's a futbol match, a bullfight, or a Flamenco performance. In Flamenco, which shares perhaps the most intimate connection to the word's origin, Olé is not reserved for marking transcendent moments (though it can), it's really meant to give the dancer energy and encouragement.
No three letter word could capture as much Spanish history as Olé.