An Exercise in Material Culture, Part 1
By Anatoly Liberman
Cushions, Pillows, Bolsters & Mattresses
Borrowed words usually come to us with borrowed things, whether it is melon, pear, pumpkin, potato or church, piano, and sputnik. Yet this is more or less true of the names of things. Outside the world of nouns, people often borrow words they either do not need or may have dispensed with. For example, bold is native, but its numerous synonyms (brave, courageous, intrepid, and quite a few others) are of Romance origin. Subtleties multiply until the embarrassment of riches chokes the speakers who no longer know which near synonym to choose. The infamous F-word was taken over from Low (= northern) German and superseded its English rivals, though nothing changed in the islanders’ habits and the old verbs were equally expressive and equally frequent. It is anybody’s guess why such a strange substitution happened. Divan, sofa, couch, mattress, cushion, and pillow are imports, and this is the way it should be, for in England couches, cushions, and the rest were guests from abroad, as a general rule, from France.
Couch and cushion are not related. The Latin etymon of couch (verb) was collocare “put together.” It lost its l in Old French; hence French couche, which surfaced in 14th-century English with the senses “bed, lair” (historically the verb seems to have preceded the noun). The reconstruction of this process poses no difficulties. By contrast, the origin of cushion is less clear. I had more than one chance to say that dictionaries, even etymological dictionaries, tend to offer their hypotheses as certain and by doing so satisfy the user, but those who consult multiple sources discover the lack of consensus among specialists and come away perplexed, if not frustrated. There is great sadness in much wisdom. There is even greater sadness in realizing how imperfect our most authoritative reference tools are. (Nothing is wrong about not knowing the origin of a word, for the beginning of many thing remains beyond reconstruction, but concealing or glossing over this fact should be condemned.)
Two main etymologies of cushion compete; yet no one doubts that the word originated in France (Modern French cousin; Engl. sh often corresponds to French s). According to one suggestion, Old French coussin, allegedly from coissin, goes back to the unattested Latin form coxinum “support for the hip,” from coxa “hip.” As a parallel, Latin cubital “elbow cushion,” from cubit “elbow,” has been cited, along with Italian cuscino and Spanish cojin, from coscia and cuja; both mean “hip.” This derivation is clever but less than fully convincing. Italian cuscino and Spanish cojin may be borrowings from French, and, if so, they supply no independent evidence for the origin of coussin: their late closeness to the word for “hip” appears to be due to folk etymology. Besides this, “support for the elbow” makes much better sense than “support for the hip.” “Support for the back” would be more to the point. All the Romance words mentioned above are familiar or partly familiar to us from English. Cubit is still remembered as an ancient measure of length (compare Engl. ell, as in el-bow, and, with regard to semantics, foot and fathom). The special term coxal “pertaining to the hip” exists too, and so does cuisse or cuish “thigh piece of armor,” directly from Old French.
Another derivation has it that the etymon of the French noun is Latin culcita “mattress; cushion, pillow; feather bed,” a word from which we have, via French, quilt (modern French coquette, from coilte/cuilte). Although altered beyond recognition, quilt resurfaces in counterpane, itself an alteration of counterpoint (still known with the sense “bed covering” to Shakespeare): counter in it is a perversion or corruption, as they used to say in the 19th century, of coulterpointe, from Medieval Latin culcita puncta “stitched quilt.” The passage from “mattress” and “bed covering, coverlet” to “cushion” is a bit disconcerting. Apparently, the word’s original meaning was rather unspecific, something like “a stuffed case of cloth, used as a support for reclining,” though quilt and counterpane do not fit even this broad definition. The Middle English word for “cushion” was often spelled with initial q-, like quilt. Latin culcita is traceable to the unattested pre-Romance culcinum and is believed to be of Celtic descent, because, according to the Roman naturalist Pliny the Elder, feather pillows were invented and became famous in Gaul. As early as the 10th century, the Old French word was also borrowed by Germans (kussin); it later changed to küssen and Kissen (the loss of umlaut is late). Dutch kussen has a similar history.
In sum, several questions remain unresolved. However, culcita is a more realistic etymon of the Romance word than coxinum. The ultimate origin of the Celtic word has not been discovered, and here we are bound to remain in the dark. A dissyllabic Indo-European root meaning “bundle” or the root kwel- “to bend, roll” has been suggested, as though a mattress were an object made of entwined or matted threads, but both proposals are little more than guesswork. Incidentally, mattress has nothing to do with mat. The etymology of both, as well as of pillow and bolster, will be discussed next time.
Anatoly 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 email@example.com; he’ll do his best to avoid responding with “origin unknown.”