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  • Paul Anthony Jones


(n.) an animal’s footprint

The dictionary has quite a robust vocabulary of words concerning the tracking and tracks of animals, like abature (the trail of trampled grass left by a stag), spraint (the droppings of an otter), feetings (birds’ footprints left in snow), and fostal (a hare’s footprint). And to this list we can add the somewhat puzzling word accub—a general term for a mark left by an animal’s foot.

The reason why this word is so puzzling is twofold. On the one hand, it doesn’t appear to have been much used outside of dictionaries—the oldest record of which, Henry Cockeram’s English Dictionarie, dates from 1623.

Early dictionary writers sometimes weren’t quite so concerned with recording the language being used around them as they were with inventing their own words and entries for their dictionaries, based on their own knowledge of Latin and Greek. A word not recorded anywhere except in the dictionaries of the Early Modern period would ordinarily set these ‘Invented By The Author Himself’ alarm bells ringing. But what compounds the problem here is that the apparent classical roots of the word accub don’t make an awful lot of sense given the meaning Cockeram attached to it.

According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the closest etymological cousin of accub is the Latin verb accubare, meaning to recline; from the same root English has adopted the word accubation for the act of reclining, although it too is seldom encountered these days, outside of fairly formal contexts and medical textbooks.

When a creature leaves a paw print in soft or muddy ground, however, it usually isn’t reclining or lying down, but walking or running. Quite why the word accub apparently comes from this root, then, is questionable. Is it Cockeram’s error? Is there another root at play here that we’ve not considered? Or was the word originally used of the depression or marks left in or around a creature’s resting place? Without any evidence outside of early dictionaries, these are questions that will have to remain unanswered—all told, leaving us with something of a puzzle.


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