By Anatoly Liberman
“Cobbler, cobbler, mend my shoe,/ Give it a stitch and that will do:/ Here’s a nail and there’s a prod,/ And now my shoe is well shod.” At first sight, all is clear in this nursery rhyme except how the cobbler, who, according to ancient advice, should stick to his last, got his name. Yet the first impression is false, and the beginning of the rhyme hints that the researcher’s paths won’t be straight. The instructions in the opening strophe are puzzling: “Cobbler, cobbler, mend my shoe,/ And get it done by half-past two:/ If half-past two can’t be done,/ Get it done by half-past one.” Really? My adventure began when somebody asked me about the etymology of clobber “to hit hard,” and it turned out that no one knows. Ever since, it has been a fixed idea with me that a mysterious tie exists between clobber and cobbler. It will be seen that my attempt to discover this tie has been at best moderately successful.
A cobbler is obviously someone who cobbles, whereas cobble looks like a frequentative or iterative verb derived from cob (such verbs—this follows from their name—designate repeated action). However, though cob “to beat, strike, thresh (seed)” has been recorded (mainly in dialects), nearly all its occurrences are late, and the meanings do not match too well, for a cobbler mends or makes shoes rather than beats or strikes. The other cobble “a rounded stone,” as in cobblestone, ends in a diminutive suffix (“a small cob”), but the etymology of cob “a round object” is also obscure and therefore sheds no light on its homonym (to) cob. Many words in the modern Germanic languages containing the syllables cob- and cop- refer to blows (“beat, thresh, hit”) and roundness (“head” and “clump,” among others), that is, a shape produced by continual striking.
Cobbler has been known from texts since the 14th century. By contrast, clobber surfaced in the middle of the 20th century and is believed to have originated in British air-force slang. From a chronological point of view they are incompatible; yet we do not know enough about the impulses that make people use certain sound groups to denote certain meanings. Numerous studies of sound symbolism attest to stable associations in this area, but they are not always able to account for the choice of the material. Even if we agree that cob- ~ cop- are sound symbolic formations, we will still be left wondering why they have been endowed with the meaning “beat, strike.” Nor do cob- and especially cop- reproduce the sound of collision accurately enough to be called echoic. However, we may recognize the connection even if we fail to explain its nature. Perhaps cobble/cobbler and clobber do go back to the same impulse.
The plot thickens in every sense of this word once we discover the existence of clobber “a black paste used by cobblers (!) to fill up and conceal cracks in the leather of shoes and boots,” first recorded in the 19th century. Predictably, its etymology is unknown. A typical feature of such formations is their ability to huddle into pseudo-families. Consider tit, tot, tat, and tad: they look alike and designate something small or insignificant, without being true cognates. In the present case, a search reveals Engl. clob “a lump of earth,” clog (originally) “a block; clump,” clod, and clot. Clout, cleat (from Old Engl. cleat “lump, wedge”), clutter, and cloud belong with clot. All those near synonyms begin with cl- but end in different consonants. Some of them turned up in texts late, the others are ancient. Their age, old or young, does not make their origin clearer. Supposedly, we are dealing with a root meaning “lump, clump” or “to stick together.”
In addition to clot-clog-clob, we should look at club. The connection between a club “cudgel” and beating, hitting, striking needs no proof. Unlike later dictionaries, the OED was cautious in tracing the English noun to Old Norse klubba, but even if club is native, it is related to klubba. An Old Norse synonym of klubba was klumba, a word always compared with Engl. clump (apparently, a borrowing from German). Skeat and others pass over the variation b ~ p (klumba ~ clump), and we can also disregard it here. More to the point is the circumstance that another Old Norse word for “club, cudgel” was kolfr, related to Old High German kolbo (Modern German Kolben). Everybody agrees, and with good reason, that kolfr ~ kolbo and klubba are cognates. Consequently, in such words l may precede or follow the vowel. Armed with this discovery, we return to cobble and clobber, the latter with both of its meanings: “lump of earth” and “hit hard.”
The verb cobble is probably what it appears to be, that is, a frequentative variant of cob “beat,” with the more specialized sense “to shape up, process (by beating)” or something similar; hence “mend.” When it arose, it began to resemble the noun clobber “paste,” which, I believe, is much older than our texts suggest. Originally, it may have had nothing to do with shoe making, but what would have been more natural than assigning it to a cobbler! It will be seen that the main difficulty in disentangling the cob-cobble-cobbler-clobber knot is chronological. The words came into existence in the depths of regional speech, whether in Common Germanic, Old English, or the 19th century, and all we know about them is that at their birth they may have been expressive, sound symbolic, or even sound imitative. The initial impulse is unclear, and recorded texts are a poor guide to their age.
Here then is the summary. Clubs exist for clobbering;-er in the verb is a suffix synonymous with -le, as in flicker, shatter, and so forth. The o ~ u variation is common in dialects. For example, slobber has the variant slubber; such pairs are rather numerous. A cobbler cobbles and a club clobbers. But in this etymological stew we find many other words, “obscurely related,” as old dictionaries liked to put it. This should not surprise us: some items of the vocabulary are aristocrats whose ancestors are millennia old, whereas others are plebeians reveling in their obscurity and incredibly vital. Clobber and cobbler do not pretend to be of noble descent.
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 b[email protected]; he’ll do his best to avoid responding with “origin unknown.”