Managing editor and logophile Andy Hollandbeck reveals the sometimes surprising roots of common English words and phrases. Remember: Etymology tells us where a word comes from, but not what it means today.
All around the country, people have decorated their homes for Halloween with jack-o’-lanterns, white-sheet ghosts, and fake cobwebs. I, on the other hand, in order to add realism to my holiday decorations, have been cultivating actual cobwebs throughout the house for the past year.
At least that’s what I’m telling people who notice the dusty, gossamer strands in the corners of my closets, in the gaps on my bookshelves, and practically everywhere in my basement.
We all understand that spiders build webs, and that word web traces back to the Old English webb, meaning “woven fabric.” But where does the cob in cobweb come from?
As long as there have been people, there have been spiders spinning webs — and occasionally biting the unwary. So the people on the island of Britain had well-established names arachnids long before the Norman Conquest brought massive French (and by extension Latin) influence to their language. One of those names in Old English was spiðra, which became the Modern English spider.
Another name was atorcoppe, from ator- “poison, venom” plus copp “top, summit,” which by extension had come to mean “head.” Atorcoppe literally meant “poison head.” (Some spiders could be described, before the advent of zoology, as little more than a tiny head with eight legs and a venomous bite.)
If atorcoppe rings a bell in your memory, you might be a fan of J.R.R. Tolkien: In The Hobbit, when the dwarves are captured by a colony of spiders, an invisible Bilbo Baggins sings a song to anger them and thus draw them away from his friends. His song begins like this:
Old fat spider spinning in a tree!
Old fat spider can’t see me!
Won’t you stop,
Stop your spinning and look for me?
It worked, too, because “no spider has ever liked being called Attercop.”
Back in the real world of English language history, atorcoppe was sometimes shortened to just coppe, like the way we get phone from telephone. So for some people, a spider’s web was called a coppewebbe. This word stuck around and underwent some spelling and pronunciation changes to turn it into cobweb in the 16th century.
So the cob in cobweb comes from the abbreviation of a word that meant “spider.” But from a stricter analysis of the roots, cobweb is more accurately “head-web,” or perhaps, for fans of Spider-Man, “web-head.”
Have a happy and safe Halloween!
Featured image: Corrado Baratta / Shutterstock
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