In a Word: Who Put the Cob in Cobweb?

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!
Attercop! Attercop!
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

In a Word: The Apostrophe

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.

September 24 is National Punctuation Day, a time when people across the country, young and old, come together with one voice to talk about how they never really figured out how to use a semicolon.

I exaggerate, of course — but not a lot. Besides, I’m not writing about the semicolon today, but about a much more common punctuation mark that can be just as difficult sometimes: the apostrophe.

We learned in elementary school that the apostrophe is used primarily for two things: to indicate that a letter or letters were omitted (as in don’t and she’ll) and to show possession. As it turns out, these might not be two separate cases at all historically.

For decades, a popular theory on how apostrophe-S came to indicate the possessive in English was that it was a shortening of his used in a way we don’t anymore. Long ago, if you were, for example, taken by some swindler on the street, you might (as the theory goes) tell the story of being fooled by “that slubberdegullion his trick.” “Slubberdegullion his” was then contracted in print, probably to mimic how it would have sounded in speech, so that we have “that slubberdegullion’s trick.”

But that theory isn’t so popular anymore. More recent scholarship focuses on how certain nouns in Old English (genitive masculine and neuter nouns, to be technical) were made possessive by adding –es to them. Merriam-Webster uses the example of cyning, the Old English word for king, which in the possessive was cyninges. So the king’s speech in Old English would have been the cyninges spæc. According to this theory, the E was dropped (because it was not to be pronounced) and the apostrophe inserted to show its absence.

All this removing of letters points to how the punctuation mark got its name as well: The Greek apo “off, away from” was combined with strephein “to turn” to create apostrephein “avert, turn away” — apostrophos prosoidia was a mark showing where a letter had been “turned away” from its usual position. This was borrowed (and shortened) into Latin apostrophus, and eventually came to English (through Middle French) as apostrophe, a punctuation mark showing where a vowel had been omitted because it was not to be pronounced.

Though vowels are the more common letters dropped in contractions, these days any letter or letters might be replaced by that curly little gremlin. (Y’know what I’m sayin’?)

But even before apostrophe had made its mark as, well, a punctuation mark, it had found a life in literature — especially in theater. This type of apostrophe is more literal: It’s a literary device in which a character “turns away” from who they’re talking to in order to speak either to someone else (often someone who is not present) or to a personified inanimate object (O happy dagger!) or abstract concept (Be fickle, fortune!).

Which means that if you’re having a problem with a possessive and you try talking your punctuation into behaving, that’s technically an apostrophe to an apostrophe.

On usage: I mentioned in the beginning that apostrophes primarily served two purposes: to show an omission of letters and to indicate the possessive. You can read primarily as almost exclusively. The apostrophe is not used when you’re making a word plural except in two very specific cases:

  1. When you need to pluralize a lowercase letter referred to as a letter. A complex algebraic equation, for example, might contain three a’s and two i’s. The apostrophe keeps readers from confusing them with two-letter words. (Did you notice how the letters are italicized, too? That’s a convention from book publishing that you won’t find in newspaper writing, so the apostrophe is quite necessary for clarity there.)
  2. Many publications call for an apostrophe to pluralize do in the phrase do’s and don’ts — many, but not all; this is a matter of house style and not English grammar. That extra apostrophe aids in quick understanding and avoids the possibility of confusion with the Spanish word for two.

Happy punctuating!

Featured image: TungCheung / Shutterstock

In a Word: Let’s Clear the Heirloom

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.

If you’re from a relatively close-knit family, it’s likely you have some memento from an ancestor stowed away in a box, a chest, or a bank vault. We cherish these heirlooms as solid pieces of family history that survive through generations.

But have you ever wondered about that word heirloom?

It looks like a straightforward compound word — heir + loom — and, as it turns out, it is. The heir- part makes sense, because heirlooms are (generally) passed on to heirs, but what about the -loom? Were the original heirlooms actual looms passed down through generations?

Yes, they were, but it’s not what you think.

The heir- part of heirloom was, like most English words that begin with a silent H, adopted from French — specifically from what’s called Anglo-French, the dialect of Old French used in England during the Middle Ages, when French was the primary language of diplomacy. And because it comes from French, it can be traced back to Latin: Its root is heres “heir/heiress,” which is also the root of heredity.

The -loom in heirloom (or ayre lome in Middle English) comes from a shortening of Old English geloma, which was a generic word for a tool or utensil of any kind. Loom didn’t shift specifically to the cloth-weaving apparatus until around the early 15th century, about the same time that heirloom was solidifying its place in the language.

This loom, by the way, is not at all etymologically related to the verb to loom, whose origin is uncertain. In early uses, it described the up-and-down movement of ships on water, and it may have evolved from the same root as the word lame.

An heirloom, then, is historically any tool or utensil that is passed on to an heir. “Any tool or utensil” is a pretty broad category, so it’s easy to see how the word came to mean “any family keepsake.”

Featured image: Violetta Derkach / Shutterstock