Printable Version
Pronunciation: kêr-chif Hear it!

Part of Speech: Noun

Meaning: A scarf or cloth worn or carried on one's person, especially a scarf worn on a woman's head.

Notes: Originally, today's Good Word referred to a scarf used strictly to cover the head. But then it lost its bearings and began entering compounds referring to other uses of kerchiefs: neckerchiefs that cover the neck and handkerchiefs that have a totally different function. Kerchiefs today may be worn anywhere—around the waist, on the shoulders—so, expect new compounds in the future.

In Play: How warm my head is!Kerchiefs were originally scarves that held the hair in place, kept the head warm, shed rain, among other useful functions: "Hedda Hair always wore a kerchief to cover the bald spots in her antique wigs." However, as we mentioned, they have migrated to other body parts in recent times: "Maud Lynn Dresser is now wearing a kerchief around her waist either as a fashion statement or to mask its expansion—I'm not sure which."

Word History: The original word was borrowed from Old French couvre-chef "cover-head", a compound from couvrir "to cover" + chef "head". French couvrir comes from Latin cooperire "cover completely" from co "with" + operire "cover" (not to be confused with operari "to work" from opera "work"). The French word for "head", chef, came from Latin caput "head" after the loss of the [ut]. The same word went into the making of chapter, capital, and the Italian word for "head", capo. The normal Germanic sound changes in words inherited from Proto-Indo-European were [k] to [h] and [p] to [f]. So the word behind Latin caput came to Old English as heafod, which the years have sanded down to head. (Today we doff our hats in graceful gratitude to one of our chief contributors, Margie Sved, for suggesting today's Good Word.)

Dr. Goodword,

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