So what, I thought, does the divine daughter of Atlas, the Titan who bears the heavens on his shoulders, have to do with a West Indian ballad on a topical theme?
I went first to the OED, which proved unhelpful. ‘Origin unknown’. (And a surprisingly late first cite, Aldous Huxley in 1934).
Would the net venture to go where OED feared to tread? It would.
The transformation into “calypso” is seen to have come from one of these sources:
1. the Carib word “carieto,” meaning a joyous song, which itself evolved into “cariso;”
2. the French patois creations “carrousseaux” from the archaic French word “carrousse,” meaning a drinking party or festivity, or “caillisseaux,” an apparent attempt to give a French form to a term transmitted orally, probably “kaiso,” of which this form be an acceptable rendition in writing;
3. the Spanish word “caliso,” a term also used for a topical song in St. Lucia;
4. “careso,” a topical song from the Virgin Islands;
5. the West African (Hausa) term “Kaiso,” itself a corruption of “kaito,” an expression
6. of approval and encouragement similar to “bravo.”
This is the derivation that has found the most favour. Hence we find Raymond Quevedo, the knowledgeable calypsonian of the early half of this century, claiming that ‘kaiso’ was the first term he knew, though it evolved into “calypso’ via ‘caliso,” “rouso” and “wouso.”
This last term “kaiso” has also survived alongside its derivation “calypso,” which, according to Errol Hill, first appeared as “calypso,” denoting the Trinidad Carnival song only in 1900. It is still used to show appreciation for a calypso well composed and executed. Thus Quevedo’s statement about “kaiso” being used to describe the song when sung as well as a means of expressing ecstatic satisfaction over what was in the opinion of the audience a particularly excellent “kaiso” is still valid today, a state of affairs that does not seem to be in any way on the decline.
The dual existence of an original word alongside its etymological derivative is nothing new. The difference in them is usually one of pure semantics. Hence “kaiso,” in addition to its main role as indicator of appreciation and approval, is at times also used interchangeably for “calypso.” In such a case it has the connotation of “genuine calypso.” In recent times, there has been in some circles a favouring of the term “kaisonian” to designate one who sings ‘genuine” calypsoes, as opposed to “calypsonian” for the run-of-the-mill. Be that as it may, the term “calypso” seems well entrenched
Nothing definite there, of course, but interesting nonetheless. And it seems that the answer to my original question is that Calypso (’concealer’ in Greek, apparently) has nothing whatsoever to do with calypso.