or, stuff that I dragged out of my head

Location: Moncton, New Brunswick, Canada

Friday, February 29, 2008


So we got home from a wedding, and there was this cobweb hanging from the ceiling. No spider: it wasn't a fresh spiderweb, it was an oldish one, which is what I think of as a cobweb, though the first definition on Dictionary.com is "a web spun by a spider to entrap its prey"--no mention of age. I always think a proper cobweb ought to have a little dust on it.

Where does "cobweb" come from, anyway? It obviously can't be any relation to a cob of corn, or the cob that is a male swan (yes, really), or even a cobblestone. So what is it?

You'll love this: the "cob-" in "cobweb" comes from Old English "coppe", which means "spider", and which in turn is related to Middle Dutch "koppe", with the same meaning. It's that simple. ("Web", by the way, is related to "weave".)

Well, what about the cob of corn? And the swan? And, for all that, the short, stocky horse?

Good question. No good answer. There are a number of versions of "cob" in English, and like quite a few short and simple words, they mostly seem to have just appeared out of nowhere. None of them has much of anything, if anything at all, to do with any of the others.

"Cobblestone", though, comes from an old sense of "cob" unrelated to any of those already mentioned, one meaning "a small lump of something", probably from Old English "copp", meaning "head", which in turn is related to German "Kopf", also meaning "head".

A female swan--you did want to know this, didn't you?--is a called a pen. A cob and a pen. And the young are called cygnets (from Greek "kyknos", "swan", plus the French diminutive "-ette"). Who thinks this stuff up?


Post a Comment

<< Home