• cobweb •
Part of Speech: Noun
Meaning: 1. An old, dusty spider web. 2. A flimsy snare or material that catches onto objects. 3. A metaphor for old age and neglect or a symbolic cause of mental sluggishness.
Notes: I'm sure you have noticed that cobwebs are neither created nor found on cobs, whether we are talking about the leftovers from ears of corn or short-legged horses. Cobwebs are created and left behind by spiders, while spider web implies a fresh web probably still inhabited by its creator. We will see where this word came from below, but here just let me just remind us that a place filled with cobwebs is cobwebby, characterized by cobwebbiness.
In Play: Cobwebs distinguish themselves from spider webs by having been long since abandoned by their creator: "I would judge from the cobwebs in her library that Lucinda Head is not an avid reader." This word becomes an especially lovely one when used in its metaphorical sense (No. 3 above): "Noah Zarque can always pull some solution to a problem that would have worked in the 19th century from the musty cobwebs in his mind."
Word History: In Middle English (1066-1480) our word for today was coppeweb, based on coppe "spider". Coppe had been shortened from Old English attorcoppe, literally "poison head" from attor "poison" + coppe "head". Coppe is the Old English version of the root cap-, that we see in Latin caput "head". The adjective for caput is capitalis "of the head", found in the English borrowings capital and decapitate. Danish has retained the construction edderkop "spider = poison head" and in Afrikaans, where kop also means "head", a spider is a spinnekop "spinner head". German kept the ancestor of coppe and today it is Kopf "head" but its word for spider is Spinne. (Christ Stewart certainly had no cobwebs in his head when he noticed the mysteries of today's Good Word and suggested that we investigate them.)
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