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  • Paul Anthony Jones


(n.) the bowl formed by cupping your hands together

gowpen hands holding yepsen raspberries

Earlier this week the word gowpen popped up on HH...:

...followed shortly after by the word yepsen.

Those definitions we tweeted being said, both those words have long been used interchangeably: although the definitions above are those given by most dictionary entries, over the centuries gowpen has been used to refer both the bowl formed by cupping your hands together, and to the quantity or yepsen it holds. And vice versa.

So why the overlap? Well, it’s all to do with the words’ shared histories. Both gowpen and yepsen have been traced back to the early 1300s, and both are believed to have their roots in an ancient Germanic word, gaup or gouf, that likely meant simply “hand” or “handful”.

The plural of gaup, “hand”, would have been something along the lines of gaupen, “hands”. From there, it’s believed gaupen ventured north into Scandinavia, became gaupn in Old Norse, and was likely borrowed into the language via Scotland as gowpen sometime around the early fourteenth century. Going an opposite route, gaupen shifted southwards and westwards, was presumably borrowed into Old English as giepsen, and became yepsen in the Middle English period.

Both words would once have been used with both meanings, before gowpen later came to be more closely attached to the “bowl” formed by the hands, and yepsen the quantity it holds:

Gowpen, the hollow of both hands placed together.
Northumberland Words (1892)

A Yaspen or Yeepsen: in Essex signifies as much as can be taken up in both hands joyn'd together.
A Collection of English Words, Not Generally Used (1674)

Neither of these words are particularly well known nor widely used today, however, and both are seldom encountered outside of dialect dictionaries and regional varieties of English. Nevertheless, they’re both obviously very useful—a yepsen of pasta must be about right for two people, surely...?

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