Words at Play

Compound Words That Used to Make a Lot More Sense

How 'cob' met 'web.' How 'jack' met 'pot.' How 'wed' met 'lock.'


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Charlotte is out to lunch.

Photo: LynnWhitt

The source of cob in the compound cobweb is coppe, a Middle English word for "spider." That word derives from the Old English name ātorcoppe. Ātor meant "poison" and coppe was a derivative of either cop, meaning "top" or "head," or copp, "cup" or "vessel." In either case, ātorcoppe was formed in reference to the supposedly venomous head of the spider. 

In the 14th and 15th centuries, cobweb was used in the form coppeweb. The change from p to b evolved over the following centuries, resulting in the spelling we use today, cobweb. Cob as a word for "spider" had some use in the 17th century in certain dialects, but it was obsolete before J. R. R. Tolkien unearthed it in The Hobbit in 1937. For example, his character Bilbo taunts the giant spiders surrounding him in song: "Lazy Lob and crazy Cob are weaving webs to wind me." (Lob is also an obsolete English word for "spider.") Tolkien also used attercop, a variation of ātorcoppe, in reference to the arachnids:

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!

The kind of cob that has corn on it comes from a different Middle English word, cobbe, meaning "head," that was used to describe things having a rounded shape.

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When a strawberry piece gets stuck in your straw when you're drinking a milkshake, the struggle is real.

Photo: KenWiedemann

People have enjoyed the strawberry for hundreds of years, and its name dates back to before the 12th century. The Old English word for the berry was strēawberige, and the exact origin of the name is not known. The most likely explanation is that the seedlike achenes that cover the strawberry were thought to resemble straw. (An achene is actually a small, dry, one-seeded fruit, and technically a strawberry is an enlarged pulpy receptacle bearing numerous achenes, but somehow this doesn't seem as appetizing as berry.)  

Another explanation is that straw in strawberry is a corruption of the word strew, which also goes back to Old English. It is believed that strew could have been the original first element of strawberry because of the way the runners—the creeping stems that touch ground and root—of the plant "strew" other plants over an area. Others have linked straw to the appearance of the runners when dried up. Both explanations are plausible but not convincing.

If you’re wondering about the origin of the name raspberry, etymologists have a better understanding of its roots. Earlier names for the berry were rasp, a dialectal term, and raspisRasp and raspis may derive ultimately from the noun rape, meaning "grape pomace." Pomace is the residue left after the juice has been extracted from fruit. Perhaps the uneven appearance of the raspberry was thought to resemble crushed fruit. The oldest evidence that we know of for the word raspberry comes from the early 17th century, several hundred years after the appearance of strawberry.

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A doughboy monument in profile.

Photo: WilliamSherman

No one is certain how the terms dough and boy came to describe soldiers. There are several theories, however, that have been served up.

In its oldest sense, doughboy, which may be an alteration of "dough ball," means "a dumpling of raised dough." One explanation for the military sense of the word holds that it was first applied humorously to United States infantrymen because the globular brass buttons on the uniforms of the foot soldiers reminded cavalrymen of doughboys—that is, dumplings.  

Others believe that infantrymen were originally called doughboys because they used to clean their white trimmings with pipe clay. If the infantryman was caught in the rain after cleaning his trimmings, the whiting would run and form a kind of dough.

During World War I, the Allies sought a name for their American compatriots and settled on doughboys. In later years, however, the nickname was replaced by the tougher-sounding G.I., an abbreviation for "government issue."

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She obviously hit the jackpot too hard, and it exploded.

Photo: SIphotography

Jackpot goes back to draw poker in which the stakes are allowed to accumulate in the "pot" until a player possesses a pair of jacks or better, at which point that player can begin play. Since the players bet on each hand until someone can open, the pot can grow quite large, which led to such pots being called jackpots. There is evidence of jackpot having been used in this sense as early as the 1880s. The popularity of poker led eventually to the broader use of the word to mean "an impressive and often unexpected success or reward." The phrase "hit the jackpot," meaning "to become notably and unexpectedly successful," appears in the 1940's.  

The ‘Vick's Vaper’ had indeed hit the jack-pot.
Newsweek, 25 Dec. 1944

The "betting" sense of pot, referring to the money at stake, originated in the first half of the 19th century.

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A Beefeater with a secret—he's a vegetarian.

Photo: marcoprati

In the 17th century, beef-eater was used as a contemptuous term for a well-fed menial servant. The name was fitting because often that was exactly what the servant was—an eater of beef.

Awake yee drowsie drones That long have suckt the honney from my hives: Begone yee greedy beefe-eaters y'are best.
Histrio-mastix, 1610

It is likely that the name was also influenced by the earlier loaf-eater, which similarly designated a servant, but one who ate the bread of a master.

The original meaning of beef-eater gradually faded, but not the name itself. It was eventually applied to a Yeoman of the Guard. The first members of the Guard were appointed at the accession of King Henry VII in 1485; however, the name Beefeater wasn't used in reference to them until the late-17th century. Evidently, the Yeomen of the Guard were either well-fed or fond of beef—or both.

Today's Beefeaters are the ceremonial warders of the Tower of London who wear the same antique uniforms as the earlier Yeomen.

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He won't be swayed by that hogwash.

Photo: RapidEye

"They in the kitchen, for jest, poured hogwash on her head," says an early written record of hogwash in English. This wasn't much of a joke, since hogwash was the common term for the garbage or slops that were mixed with water, or skimmed or sour milk, and fed to pigs. The second element of hogwash refers to kitchen swill or brewery refuse used as food for swine—a very different meaning from the more familiar senses of wash.  

Hogwash in its literal sense has been in use since at least the middle of the 15th century. Early 17th-century evidence shows that an extended use had developed in which the word was depreciatingly applied to weak inferior liquor or any worthless stuff.

The very remembrance of that Hogges wash which they use to sell ..., is able to distemper any mans braines.
— Barnaby Rich, A New Description of Ireland, 1610

Over time, hogwash came to be used in more figurative applications, especially in American English and was eventually applied to worthless ideas, writing, or art. 19th-century writers Mark Twain and Bret Harte, for instance, used it that way.

I will remark, in the way of general information, that in California, that land of felicitous nomenclature, the literary name of this sort of stuff is "hogwash."
— Mark Twain, The Galaxy, June 1870

"You don't mean to say that's the sort of hog wash the old man serves out to you regularly?" continued Lance, becoming more slangy in his ill temper.
— Bret Harte, Flip, 1882

It is somewhat ironic that wash is a part of this word related to things in need of being cleaned up, whether its scraps, bad food or drink, or insipid writing.

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The final puzzle pieces are often gathered piecemeal, despite your impatience to complete the sail boat.

Photo: FatCamera

It may surprise you that the meal of piecemeal is related to the traditional three meals—breakfast, lunch, and dinner—that are eaten daily. The meal suffix is from Old English mǣl, meaning "appointed time" or "mealtime." It is akin to Old High German māl, meaning "time," and much more distantly to Latin metiri, "to measure." As mǣl was kneaded to meel in Middle English, the word became more closely associated with food than with time or measurement. The modern senses and spellings of meal were established by the end of the 17th century. Today, the remnants of meal relating to time in the English language can be found in piecemeal and inchmeal, where meal is a suffix meaning "by a specified portion or measure at a time."  

The meal in food names, like oatmeal and cornmeal, is unrelated to Old English mǣl. That meal descends from Old English melu, a word akin to Old High German malan and Latin molere, meaning "to grind." Derived from molere is Latin molina, which means “mill” and which is the ultimate source of the English noun and verb mill.  

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The happy couple forgot to repaint their wall before the big day.

Photo: aldomurillo

The origins of wedlock have nothing to do with locking. In Old English the suffix –lāc, from which the lock in wedlock was formed, was used to denote an activity. Wedlock has the distinction of being the only surviving example of the use of this suffix in English. (An antiquated example of the suffix is in the obsolete reiflock, a word for the activity of plundering—reif is a Scottish word for "plunder.")

Since the Old English wedd meant "pledge," the term wedlock means etymologically "the activity of giving a pledge." Its first known use, however, referred to a nuptial vow or marriage bond and was used in phrases like "to keep wedlock" and "to break wedlock”—with reference to marital fidelity. Such usage is now obsolete, as is its old sense referring to a wife.

He heard his wedlock shreeking out, and did hir calling know.
— Arthur Golding (translator), Ovid, 1567

The sense that survives today, "the state of marriage," is also very old, dating back to the 13th century. The word in this sense is probably now most familiar in the phrase "born out of wedlock."

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Observe, the dingbat in his natural habitat.

Photo: RyanJLane

The most common senses of dingbat refer to typographical symbols (as *, ¶, or †), and to a crazy person. The word, however, has had a number of other less frequently recorded slang uses. Dingbat has been used to mean money, a slap, a hobo, and an admired woman. It has also been used to refer to any sort of object that can be thrown. There is also a good deal of evidence that dingbat was formerly used the way we now use whatchamacallit or thingamabob, which probably influenced its typographical sense referring to a nondescript character.

It was sitting on a strange and almost indescribable sort of iron dingbat.
— James Thurber, "The Owl Who Was God," 1931

Although the exact origin of the word is unknown, there has been speculation on its etymology. The source for ding may be the English verb ding or the Dutch word dinges, meaning "thing," which is also the source of English dingus, meaning "gadget" or "doodad." Bat is possibly the same bat used for a club or a solid stick that originated in Old English. The word was later applied to lumps or fragments of a material (perhaps from the notion that the pieces were batted off)—thus, we have brickbat, which refers to a hard fragment. Bat in this sense referred to almost any material, and its vagueness may have contributed to its use in dingbat.

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The bulldozer stops to contemplate its bulldozing.

Photo: millraw

Certainly an earth-moving bulldozer in action can be compared to a bull plowing forward, but the first bulldozer was an animalistic human. The origins of the verb bulldoze are suspected to be the name of the animal and the medical term dose (a variant spelling of bulldoze is bulldose). The verb is a late-19th century Americanism and was initially used to refer to a severe beating or flogging, especially one in a dose fit for a bull, before it gained its specific sense of intimidating by violence or threats especially for political purposes.

There was a bad case of "bulldozing" in Cincinnati on Monday night. A handful of bold Democrats had gathered to let out their pent-up desire for Tilden or blood.
The New York Tribune, December 1876

The Democrats complain of the amounts of money they had to face, but that was not such a source of trouble as the bulldozing of voters by the mining bosses.
The Detroit Evening Journal, 20 Feb. 1888

Bulldozer named the people carrying out coercive bulldozing before being applied to the early-20th-century machine that forcefully pushes aside everything in its path. It is possible that the machine was so named by an association of the forceful bulldozing of people by intimidation with the violent changing of the earth's contours by force.




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