Issue 181, page 1

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Spotlight on...

cups, coops, hoops and heaps

Er, well... English has an apparently simple trait of adding -er to the end of a word to create another word. Most are quite obvious (a farmer farms, we poke with a poker) but what does a fritter do? And why is someone who sells fruit called a fruiterer, what's wrong with "fruiter"? These thoughts occurred to us this week as we discussed the name Cooper. It would seem to denote someone who coops but what would that mean? Is it anything to do with chickens? Well, only remotely.

A cooper was a skilled craftsman who made barrels but the derivation is from Low German kuper, from medieval Latin cupa "a vat, tub"; it has no direct connection to the word coop. Originally, in the 14th century, a coop was just a basket, then, two centuries later, it meant a kind of basket placed over fowls while they were being fattened or incubating chicks.  And you thought cubicle-workers were cooped up!wine barrels

The Latin cupa "barrel" also gave us cup and cupola, a vaulted dome whose name means "a little cask". In Sanskrit, a distant relative of English, kapala means "skull". Does this mean that our common ancestors, the Indo-Europeans, drank from skulls? No, it doesn't (but it has been suggested). The link between cup, cupola, and kapala is that they all derive from  the Indo-European root *keu- indicating something "arched, bent, curved or domed".  This ancient word-stem is also the common origin of cooper, coop, cupa, incubate and even cubicle. A cooper shapes and bends staves of wood which he then arranges and holds in place with hoops - hoop being a related word. Baskets are made by bending wicker. Heap is also related, being curved and domed.

As arched roofs were some of the highest things our Anglo-Saxons forebears had seen, the "arched" connotations of *keu- came to imply elevation, hence our words high and height. On the other hand, most *keu- words imply bending and hence lowering one's height:  to hunker is "to crouch", someone who bends over due to the load of wares on his back is a hawker, and one who squats on the ground to peddle his wares is a huckster (from Middle Dutch hokester "one who squats"). 

A little jump on the spot is, you know, a hop. Before you can hop you must bend your legs and you'd find it difficult to hop without a hip, a bone with a domed, curved prominence. Both hip and hop are descendants of the  "arched, bent, curved" *keu-. 

The word coop was sometimes used to mean a pile of something (most often manure), possibly by confusion with the coup which meant "a dung-cart". But a pile of something is curved and domed, and there is a Dutch hoop which certainly does mean heap. We mean no offense to the Dutch army but, for some reason, their word for "heap" came to mean a group of soldiers. The Dutch hoop is pronounced as we pronounce hope. Thus, when the Dutch spoke of a verlorn hoop ("lost troop [of soldiers]" ), English speakers heard it as forlorn hope

The Romans slept in rooms called cubiculae from the Latin verb cubare "to lie down" (originally "to bend down"). This has given us several words including concubine, incubate and succubus (not to mention cubicle, "office sleeping chamber"). While some Romans said cubare, others said cumbare... giving us incumbent, recumbent, and succumb.

Greek kymbos, meaning "a bowl", gave Latin cymbalum - literally "a bowl-shaped instrument". This, of course, became our cymbal but it also (no one quite knows how) became chime.

In case you were wondering...

Fritter is a corruption of the French friture, from Latin frigere, "to fry".

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Last Updated 04/18/03 04:07 PM