Sunday, March 23, 2014

Cobbling Together Some Etymologies

Cobb Salad: 
Cobb salad.  I love a good Cobb salad. The salad itself is relatively easy to put together — ham, eggs, tomatoes, avocado, chicken, Roquefort cheese, and greens.  It's the dressing that matters most to me, and I found a recipe I like.  While searching through recipes on-line, I also found Saveur's version, and it explained why the salad is so named. It is named after its inventor, Robert H. Cobb, part-owner of the famous Brown Derby restaurants in Los Angeles.  He came up with the dish in 1937 — it is said that he threw together what he could find in the kitchen for a late night dish, and a menu mainstay was born. Wikipedia gives even more detail on this, though a source is not cited:
The Hollywood Brown Derby is the purported birthplace of the Cobb Salad, which was said to have been hastily arranged from leftovers by owner Bob Cobb for showman and theater owner Sid Grauman. It was chopped fine because Grauman had just had dental work done, and couldn't chew well.
That is an entertaining, if possibly apocryphal, bit of information on the origin of the Cobb salad.

On researching the Brown Derby, I learned that there were eventually four Brown Derby restaurants in L.A.:
Brown Derby:
Wilshire Boulevard (the original, opened in 1926, and shaped like a derby hat), Hollywood, Beverly Hills, and Los Feliz. These restaurants figured prominently in Hollywood of the 1930s, 40s and 50s.  Stars flocked there to eat, and star-watchers flocked there to see them.  Sadly, the restaurants had all closed by the 1980s.

After researching the salad name, I began to wonder about other cobb- and cob-related words. There are several.  First is the surname Cobb, which is thought to have come from the Middle English nickname or personal name Cobbe/Cobba, related to Old Norse Kobbi. All of these are thought to derive from a word that meant "lump" — lump in this sense referred to a large (round) man.  This was curious, but interesting. However, it got more interesting when I looked up cob.  I knew this word to refer to horses, male swans, and to (sweet) corn, but the first sense in the OED is "a great man, big man, leading man" (from as early as 1420).  What could horses, swans, and corn have to do with big men or leaders?

Welsh cob:
Horses called cobs are stout, short-legged ponies.  A cob is also a male swan.  Further, a cob of corn is the seed head of the corn plant.  Two different senses are coming through here: a short, stout horse could be thought of as round, or lump-shaped.  On the other hand, a male swan is the head swan, and a cob of corn is the seed head.  Both of these senses can be connected with the body part known as the head.  It is often round (certainly so in humans) and it is, rather obviously, a head, and the figurative leader of the body.  The OED doesn't like to make this connection between the two senses of cob ("round" and "leader"), but John Ayto does (in his Dictionary of Word Origins, 1990). It is indeed an attractive suggestion, for an obsolete English word for "top of the head" is cop. This appears to have mutated into cob in the word cobweb, so couldn't it have mutated into some of the other cob words?   Cop is an old word for "spider," being short for attercop, which derives from Old English ator "poison" and coppe "head."  Ayto goes on to suggest that cop/coppe (and thus cob) could very well be related to Latin caput "head."  Other English words that derive from the Latin are cap (head covering) and cape (with the sense "hood," a type of head covering).

There are several other meanings of cob that include the round sense (some of these are dialectic): the stone of a fruit; a testicle; a small stack of hay; a knot of hair; a lump of coal; an apple dumpling.  Then there is cobblestone, referring to the rounded shape of the stones. Cobble in that sense is a diminutive form of cob. The head sense is found in an obsolete meaning of cob: "the head of a (red) herring."

Now, what about the other obvious cob/cobb words: cobbler (person) and cobbler (dessert)?  The dessert meaning is chiefly American and dates from around 1859 in the written record.  The OED does not suggest an etymology, but Robert K. Barnhart, in his Dictionary of Etymology (1995), suggests a connection with cobeler, "a wooden bowl or dish."  He dates that word to 1385, but the OED does not have it (though the OED, and the on-line Middle English Dictionary, to which the OED on-line links, have cobeler as an early form of cobbler "shoe mender"). Others have suggested the dessert is so named because it consists of fruit baked with lumps of dough placed on top, taking us back to the "round" or "lump" senses. As for the person called a cobbler, or a shoe mender, no one seems to know its origin (it dates from about 1362).  Cobble "to mend roughly" or "to put together roughly" is a back formation from cobbler "shoe mender" and dates from around 1496.

How about the UK expression cobblers for "nonsense"?  That is apparently from rhyming slang: cobbler's awls = "balls" (testicles) or "rubbish."  As I've tweeted before, Americans are not very familiar with rhyming slang, but we do use a bit.  Here's that tweet: 
Americans do use rhyming slang:raspberry (raspberry tart=fart) & dukes ([put up your] dukes=hands (Duke of York=fork (fork=slang for hand))).
The shorthand and somewhat cramped style of the above quotation were employed to keep the length at 140 characters or fewer, the cardinal rule of Twitter.

There are other words that start with cob-.  What about cobalt?  It is not related to those above.  It, instead, comes from German Kobold "goblin".  Early German miners named it thus because the mineral occurred with arsenic and sulfur, which often made the miners ill.  Further, as an impurity, it lessened the value of the silver ore being mined.  The miners attributed cobalt's presence to mischievous goblins.  Several etymologies of the German word have been suggested: that it derives from kuba-walda or "ruler of the house"; that it comes from kofewalt "a spirit controlling one room"; and that it comes from German elements meaning "spirit of the pigsty."  German supernatural creatures appear to have been quite specialized!

A cobra:
There is another cob- word that I did not think of immediately, and when I did, I felt sure it wasn't related to the words with etymological senses of "head" and "round."  Cobras are, after all, snakes that are not native to English-speaking regions (or even regions where Latinate languages were native), and surely, I thought, their name is derived from an indigenous African or Asian term.  However, that is where I erred.  The name cobra is short for Portuguese cobra de capello "snake with a little hood," referring, of course, to the cobra's ability to enlarge the appearance of its head by expanding its hood.  Cobra here derives from Latin colubra "snake." While it is not related to the above cob- words, it is Indo-European in origin, like the other cob- words.  It dates from 1817.


Unknown said...

Fascinating as always. I'm reminded of another "similar" word, although not an English one. The small round hills dotting the landscape of South Africa are referred to as koppies: the ies suffix being a diminutive. I know, kop isn't cob but p an b do tend to drift in languages and we are talking about a round lump...

Unknown said...

David, koppie is in the OED and the OED derives it ultimately from Dutch kop - "head." Gosh, now I think I'll research cop/kop words for a future blog entry. Thanks!