or, stuff that I dragged out of my head

Location: Moncton, New Brunswick, Canada

Wednesday, May 28, 2008

Against All Odds

One of the problems with going to the gym these days--well, the only problem, I guess, once you get past the general boredom of the experience--is that they play horrible horrible popular music that gets stuck in your head no matter how hard you try to ignore it, even if you're wearing headphones and listening to other music that's of necessity raised to a level almost certainly injurious to the hearing over time.

Or maybe that's just me. All I know is, three unspeakably bad songs have been ricocheting through my head for days now (I hesitate to name them for fear that they'll get stuck in your head, too, but they're "Clumsy" by Fergie, "No One" by Alicia Keys, and "Bleeding Love" by Leona Lewis, each somehow worse than the other two), and the only way to dislodge them is to force another song to replay over and over in my head until that's stuck there instead.

So, for no apparent reason, the song that's been in my brain for the last half hour is "Baby On Board" from an old Simpsons episode. Hey, it beats Fergie. The word "windowpane" appears in the song, and that naturally forces me to wonder about the word "counterpane", which not only couldn't really be related, but, for all I know, is from the Italian "contro pane", "against bread", as if a duvet could somehow protect you from marauding loaves in your sleep.

But surprise surprise: the "pane" of "windowpane" is in fact related to the "pane" of "counterpane". I didn't expect it.

A pane, of course, is a sheet of glass. But it's also a sheet of other things as well: of stamps before they've been torn apart, or of wood in a door. This last is also called a panel, and in fact a moment's consideration will reveal that "pane" and "panel" are pretty much the same word. They both come from Latin for "cloth", "pannus", which also exists in English as a medical term for an excess of tissue, usually a thickened cornea or the apronlike flap that hangs over the abdomen when a formerly obese person loses a lot of weight. (This last is also called a "panniculus", attaching the usual Latin diminutive suffix to the word.)

So the "pane" of a counterpane is a sheet of fabric, sensibly enough, and the "pane" of a windowpane is by grammatical extension a sheet of something else.

But what's that "counter-" doing there? Nothing, as it turns out: it doesn't mean what it looks as if it ought to, which is "against". "Counterpane" is formed from a two-word phrase, "culcita punctus", the first word meaning "pillow, quilt, mattress" (in fact, it's the source of "quilt") and the second "pierced" or "stitched". This turned into "coultepointe" in Old French, and then gradually into "contrepoint". That's when it entered English as "countrepoint", and by long slow degrees of evolution became "counterpane"; the "pane" replaced the "point" because by that time, "pane", with its sense of "a sheet of cloth", also meant "a bedspread", and so "counterpoint" and "pane" got mashed together into a perfect illustration of a portmanteau word.

One more pleasant etymology: "pannus" became "fana" in Old English, meaning "flag", a sheet of fabric flapping in the breeze, and "fana" gradually turned into "vane".


Post a Comment

<< Home