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  • Paul Anthony Jones


(n.) an enclosed cabinet, often fitted with shelves, for storing food or other items

It’s normal for words to change a great deal over time, of course, but some words change an awful lot—like those listed in this tweet that popped up on Haggard Hawks just the other day.

Delve into the etymologies of these, and some connections start to make sense. Sink was a verb before it became a noun in English, and it’s understandable that a verb meaning ‘to become submerged’ could ultimately come to refer to a hollow in the earth where refuse collects—hence as a noun, a sink was originally a cesspit.

The ‘robe’ in wardrobe is the same one you wear (although originally was used in a looser sense, essentially meaning ‘garment’). The ‘ward’ in wardrobe is the same warding that guardians and keepers do. Put those two roots together, and you have a word that originally meant a secret private chamber where a person could change or dress.

Couch comes from the French verb coucher, meaning to lie down or go to sleep, and so it originally referred to a bed. And the word carpet comes from an old Latin word for a thick type of woollen cloth; the coverings made from it were originally used on beds and tables, not floors, and so carpet initially described what we’d now call a tablecloth.

As for cupboard, that’s a little more puzzling. If a cup is a cup, and a board is a board, why is a cupboard a ‘cup-board’? After all, a board is a flat, wooden panel for putting things on, not a closed cabinet for putting things in. So how on did we get from A to B here?

Back when the word first emerged in the late 1300s, a cupboard was a table—a literal ‘cup-board’, or flat tabletop, used for serving, storing or displaying cups and crockery. (Likewise a sideboard too was originally a table, only one kept literally at the ‘side’ of a room.)

No one is entirely sure why, but by the early sixteenth century that meaning had altered so that a cupboard was no longer a table used to display crockery, but a closed cabinet or recess in which cups, plates, dishes and other vessels could be displayed or stored until required. By the seventeenth century, people were also using these newly defined cupboards to store food (to cry cupboard even meant ‘to crave food’ in the late 1600s), and by the mid nineteenth century, people were finally finding skeletons in their cupboards:

Was it an Englishman or a Frenchman who first remarked that every family had a skeleton in its cupboard? I am not learned enough to know, but I reverence the observation, whoever made it. It speaks a startling truth through an appropriately grim metaphor – a truth which I have discovered by practical experience. Our family had a skeleton in the cupboard, and the name of it was Uncle George.
Wilkie Collins, The Queen of Hearts (1859)

But if you think the change from ‘table’ to ‘cupboard’ seems peculiar, the Italian word credenza has an even stranger history.

Nowadays, a credenza is a low sideboard or free-standing cupboard, but the word’s literal meaning is the same as the English word credence—namely ‘belief’, ‘trust’ or ‘credibility’. The change in meaning here is down to little more than the paranoia of medieval royals and nobles, who were so terrified of being poisoned that they would demand someone else taste their food before they did. Consequently any food that was brought to them would be first placed on a credenza, where its literal ‘trustworthiness’ could be tested by some unlucky servant. If the servant survived, the food would be deemed safe, whereas if the servant died—well, at least he got a free meal out of it.

Adapted from The Accidental Dictionary, OUT NOW

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