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An Exercise in Material Culture, Part 2

By Anatoly Liberman

Cushions, Pillows & Bolsters

Last week I discussed the origin of the word cushion.  Our correspondent wonders whether we are perhaps talking about bedrolls here.  Judging by medieval miniatures from the East, old cushions were like those known to us, but the broad scope of referents, with the same word serving as the name of a cushion, bedcover, and mattress, does pose the question of the original object’s form and uses.  The reconstructed sense “bundle” (a most uncertain sense of a rather fanciful reconstruction) does not fit our idea of a cushion, even though words change their field of application while traveling from culture to culture and “internally,” as evidenced by the history of litter:  Latin lectus and Medieval Latin lectaria meant “bed” (Modern French lit), later “portable couch,” “material (such as straw) for bedding,” “the number of young brought forth at a birth “ (because the animal giving birth lies on this bedding,” and finally, “rubbish” (a disorderly accumulation of things lying about).  This development would have been hard to predict.  However, a headrest does not have to be a soft object with or without a case for it.  In Ancient Greece, cloaks were often made into a “bundle” and used as pillows.  From a historical point of view, matting and bedding are often indistinguishable.  Beds, as we know from images on Greek vases, were easy to carry from place to place, even though they had wooden frames (hence “Take thy bed and go”).  Consequently, the idea of a bedroll is justified, regardless of the value the word’s reconstructed protoroot; it is the details that escape us.  I can also add that my preference of the etymon culcitta rather than coxinum (both unattested) for cushion is not shared by some of the most knowledgeable specialists among our contemporaries, but I keep thinking that “hip support” makes relatively little sense in defining cushion, whether old or modern, and stay with the OED.  (An aside: cushy, as in cushy job, is not related to cushion, except by folk etymology.)

The history of pillow also begins in Latin, and this time the etymon (pulvinus “pillow, cushion; bolster; headrest”; stress on long i in the second syllable) is in plain view. Whatever the sleeping habits of the early speakers of Western Germanic (the ancestors of the modern Germans, Dutch, and the tribes that settled in Britain) might be, those people did not have pillows, Roman style, for they evidently imported the thing and borrowed the word, which they pronounced pulwin.  Alongside Engl. pillow, we find Modern German Pfühl and Dutch peluwe, but, strangely, no modern Romance language seems to have a reflex of pulvinus, unless it exists in some dialects ignored by the dictionaries I consulted.  The Scandinavian languages went their own way: consider Swedish kudde (allied to Engl. cod, as in codpiece, the original meaning being “bag”; hence also “husk” and “testicle”) and Norwegian pute ~ Danish pude (related to Engl. pout, pudding, and other words referring to swollen objects).  Sometimes the word for “pillow” is derived from the word for “cheek”; such are Old Engl. wangere (with cognates in related languages) and Italian guanciale (guancia “cheek,” borrowed from Germanic), or for “head” (then “head support”); so Spanish cabezo “cushion,” ultimately from the root of Latin caput “head” (the same in Portuguese).  Icelandic sessi has the same root as Engl. sit; a sessi must have been a thing to sit on.

I have listed al those seemingly irrelevant words, because the origin of Latin pulvinus is unknown, and an etymologist, in order to discover how some object, quality, or action got its name, often has to look at the history of a great number of words with the same or similar meaning as the one under investigation: perhaps a synonym in another language will suggest a tie that can be of use.  Pillows, as we have seen, are sometimes “swollen” things,”  “bags,” and even objects to lay a cheek or to sit on.  Additionally, the name coined for a pillow may be transferred from the name of a mattress or a blanket.  Unfortunately, none of this information leads us to the etymology of pulvinus.  At one time, dictionaries suggested that the Roman pulvinus was filled with pulvis, but pulvis meant only “dust,” and later meanings in Germanic (“ashes; sand”) are equally inappropriate for understanding how such stuff could be used for making pillows comfortable; one expects, feathers, down, horsehair, seaweeds, or anything soft.  So once again we should admit that the distant origin of our word remains undiscovered.  Pillow came to early Germanic from Latin (this fact cannot be doubted), but we have no clue to why the Romans called the pillow pulvinus.

At first sight, bolster appears to be a much easier word to explain.  It has congeners everywhere in Germanic, this time also in Scandinavian.  If -ster is a suffix in bolster, the root possibly meant “swell” (by now a familiar idea in dealing with such objects), as in belly, bellows, ball, and many other closely and loosely related b-l words.  The problem is that an almost identical noun occurs in the Baltic and Slavic languages.  They may be bona fide cognates of Engl. bolster, Dutch bolster, German Polster, and Modern Scandinavian bolster, but all of them, as well as their counterparts in Slavic and Baltic, may have been borrowed from some unknown source.

Only mattress has unquestionable antecedents.  The word came to European languages from Arabic and meant “place where something is thrown; mat; cushion.”  Spanish and Portuguese retain the Arabic definite article (almadraque; compare Spanish and Portuguese almohada “head cushion,” also with al- preserved).  The route was from Arabic to Italian, French, and English (naturally, the word made its way to Europe with the thing).  In contrast, mat (as in doormat, welcome mat, and so forth) is again from Latin (matta), where it was a “loan” from the East, perhaps ultimately of Hebrew descent.  Given such origins, the fact that mat is not related to such Indo-European words as matter or material needs no proof.  But the verb mat, mainly used in the past participle, as in matted hair, fibers matted together, and the like, is indeed a derivative of this mat, from the sense “to cause to form a confused tangled mat.”

If I were not so averse to cheap puns, I could have said that most hypotheses expounded in this and the previous post need a good deal of bolstering up, but instead of indulging in unprofitable wordplay, I will only express my satisfaction that at least some pieces of the puzzles connected with cushions, pillows, bolsters, and the rest have been placed where they belong.


Anatoly_libermanAnatoly Liberman is the author of Word Origins…And How We Know Them as well as An Analytic Dictionary of English Etymology: An Introduction. His column on word origins, The Oxford Etymologist, appears here, each Wednesday. Send your etymology question to him care of blog@oup.com; he’ll do his best to avoid responding with “origin unknown.”

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