Thursday, 5 December 2019

Covers, Discoveries, Handkerchiefs and Curfews


I have been considering the word cover. This is partly because The Etymologicon, The Horologicon and The Elements of Eloquence have been reprinted in a beautiful new edition, just in time for Christmas; and partly because I am an extraordinarily dull and lonely fellow.

I also have a cold, which is putting great strain on my collection of handkerchiefs. Now a handkerchief is obviously a kerchief that you hold in your hand. That much is obvious. But it leaves the throbbing question of What is a kerchief?

Well a chief is a head. That's true in English, is true in French (where the head cook is the chef), and it was true in medieval French where your chief was your head. If, for some French reason, you wished to cover your chief you used a piece of cloth called a cover-chief or, in French a couvrechief.

This was what we would call a headscarf, but that's just a square of cloth really. So a couvrechief came into English as a kerchief and hence a handkerchief is, literally, a handheld-cover-head. But I employ mine to blow my nose.

(Incidentally, the more obscure word for blowing your nose is emunction. This may come in useful. 'Tis the season and all that. The Anglo-Saxon word for the practice was sniting, but I digress down needless nostrils).

The other thing that Medieval French people liked to cover were their fires. They did this at the end of the day to make the fire burn down to a smoulder. Then they would toddle off to bed. In the morning, they would stir the fire up to a blaze and have a nice French breakfast.

In French this was called the couvre-feu, or cover-fire. There used to be a bell that was rung to tell everybody that it was time to cover their fire and go to bed. This tolling bell became known in English as the curfew. And hence a curfew is any requirement to go to bed, whether ding-donged or not.

[A foolish error has been removed. See below]

Anyway, the word cover has various other meanings and variations of varying mysteriousness. You can cover more ground by moving fast, you can cover for a colleague, a journalist can cover a subject (presumably in ink), and a gunman can have you covered. No amount of research has explained to me why a cover version is called that. But my favourite cover lingers in plain sight. It is the word discover.

To dis-cover something is to remove its cover. Once upon a time this could be used for anything. So a strong wind could discover a house, i.e. blow its roof off. A chef could discover a bowl. One could discover one's Christmas presents by unwrapping them. It is the sense of something that was once covered having its cover removed. This is rather beautiful when you think about it in its modern sense. The discovery of America, for example, suggests that there was a whole veiled continent , until Mr Columbus pulled the curtain away and discovered it.

You should not discover these books.


I've removed a digression that I made on the subject of being "in full swing", for the simple reason that I was wrong. I looked at the OED entry for "full swing", but hadn't noticed that they had another for "in full swing" that takes the phrase back to 1570 with no mention of bells.

(Incidentally, a church bell turns on an axle. If it's being rung in a slow dong... dong... dong... then that requires the bell-ringer to balance the bell at the the top of its turn in order to get the pause. The alternative is to let ring the bells like crazy and let them do their full swing. Hence the phrase in full swing. It's a bellringer's term*).

*The OED only has it from 1843 without any bells. But I found an "in full swing" from 1802: "The bell being in full swing, no alteration whatever was perceptible. The instant that the clapper was loosed the mercury leaped up, and continued that sort of springing motion, at every stroke of the clapper".



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