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Cubs galore

The time has come to find out where cub came from. I dealt with cub in my etymological dictionary, but a quick look at the word may not hurt, the more so as cub, which surfaced in English texts only in the early sixteenth century, turned out to be an aggressive creature: it ousted whelp, and later the verb to cub came into existence. Whatever the origin of cub (and the answer will be only partly illuminating), the constant suppression of old words by upstarts is a process worth noticing, regardless of the theme being discussed today. Not that whelp is such a dignified name (it rather probably means “yelper”: see the post for 16 December 2020), but still it is a Germanic noun of unquestionable antiquity, with relatives all over the place, as becomes whelps. Yet words like cub are irresistibly attractive: short, rootless, and mildly sound-imitating or sound-symbolic. This is how slang, this child of emotions and rude humor, originates all over the world and why its etymology is so hard to trace.

Cub emerged in the form cubbe, but adding superfluous letters was so common in the past (many scribes believed that the longer a word is, the more attention it will gain) that the existence of the second syllable is dubious.  A few wild suggestions about the origin of cub may be disregarded, but two conjectures travel from one source to another and deserve attention. Irish cuib “whelp” is often mentioned as the source of cub. As a general rule, when a borrowing is posited, it is useful to know the origin of the source, but cuib is hopelessly obscure, so that tracing it and cub to the same ancient etymon holds out little promise, especially because English cub is so late. Equally unappealing is the idea of borrowing.

The pendulum of course swings, but watch the world-famous pendulum Foucault. (Image by Daniel Sancho)

In the history of English etymology, two periods can be discerned. In the rather remote past, Celtomania prevailed: hundreds of English words having Irish or Welsh lookalikes were declared to be of Celtic origin. Some time later, the pendulum swung in the opposite direction, for that is what the pendulum always does. Now etymologists took it for granted that the Celts could only borrow from the English. Later, a reasonable approach prevailed. Researchers stopped jumping to conclusions, nationalistic fervor (in this area of scholarship) gave way to careful study, and the existence of the two-way English-Celtic street replaced fantasies and demagoguery. At present, an influential school exists that ascribes some of the most important features of English phonetics and grammar to Celtic, but it seems to have had no influence on English etymology. In any case, cub and cuib are unlike: the vowels do not match, and in the Irish word, final b is pronounced as v. It will be safer to assume that they are not connected.

A considerably more promising analog is Icelandic kobbi “seal,” which is sometimes believed to be a pet name of the older kópr (the same meaning), but the convergence between kópr and kobbi may be late, a product of folk etymology. A close neighbor of Icelandic kobbi is Icelandic kubbi “a block of wood,” and the English parallel cob ~ cub springs to mind at once. Unfortunately, cob is an awkward word for comparison, because it refers to so many things: a male swan, several fishes, a short-legged stout, a variety of horse, a gull, and a spider (known from cobweb), all kinds of lumpy objects, and “head” (compare corncob), among others. The seal’s head is a conspicuous part of its body, and kubbi may indeed be understood as a “something round.” We seem to be returning to calf, with its posited original meaning “swelling; round object” (see the post for 6 January 2021). Cop is so obscure that it is better to stay away from its history while discussing cob. The oldest history of German Kopf “head” remains undiscovered despite several centuries of attempts to find its source. Also, “head” and “round object” are not synonyms, a circumstance noted in the original version of the OED.

A prototypical cub (soft and round). (Image by 燕珊 张.)

Despite all the difficulties we face, certain things are known. The string k-b and k-p occur in numerous animal names, with the vowels randomly alternating according to the format described more than once in this blog. Here are a few examples of obsolete or dialectal words: Dutch kabbe ~ kebbe “little pig,” English kebbe “ewe that has lost her lamb or whose lamb is stillborn,” German kibbe ~ kippe “ewe,” Swedish kibb ~ kubbe “calf,” and dozens of other similar formations in Germanic. The problem is that in stringing together such words, one does not know where to stop. Some of them refer to sticks and blocks of wood (English chip, from kipp) or conversely to things fat or round (Old Icelandic kjabbi “fat person”). And each of those coinages may and sometimes does also designate a young creature or a small animal. Few of those formations were recorded in the oldest languages, and many are regional. They sound like primitive coinages, as do many other monosyllables whose etymology has never been discovered to everybody’s satisfaction: dig, dog, cut, put, and so forth.

In dealing with cub (and cob) and its likes, one faces an unexpected situation: the origin of the entire group looks rather transparent, but every word is a riddle. In any case, cub and cob (to the extent that the latter refers to round objects) seem to belong together. If this conclusion is correct, then cub, like Old Germanic kal-b and English cil-d “child”, are synonyms, except that calf and child are ancient, while cub is relatively late. Old age does not make kalb– more important to a language historian. It only confirms the well-known fact that the impulses behind word formation never vary.

And here you can see two prototypical cobs. (L: image by Seahamlass, R: image by Kaldari.)

It may perhaps be useful for the authors of etymological dictionaries to adopt two formats: some entries will have a traditional shape (one entry for one word), while others will be devoted to small groups. Something like this is occasionally done, but rarely. Both cub and cob have similar referents and are upstarts. To a certain extent, the same etymology covers both. In this series, which is devoted to animal names, we may be satisfied with the conclusion that, for whatever reason, cub and calf made people think of things round and swollen; hence the names of those baby animals. The recorded words might and probably did migrate from community to community, merge, and be applied to different creatures. The complex k-b fits equally well piglets, lambs, and whelps, among others and is so indeterminate that it easily acquired a more general sense. Hence so many animals—from seals to giraffes—have cubs. Once they grow up, they acquire other identities. But before that, all of them are their mothers’ kids.

Now you are probably wondering where kid came from. A good question, but not for a postscript to cub.

Recent Comments

  1. Maggie Catambay

    How about “bunny” as a name for baby rabbits? The sound “bu… and “….ub” sound round and fat to me, now that you mention it!

    Looking forward to “kid”!

    I like the idea of dictionaries having groups of related words together.

  2. Roy Blount Jr

    “The well-known fact that the impulses behind word formation never vary”?
    Roy Blount Jr

  3. Constantinos Ragazas


    The English “cub” may be related to the Greek “κουταβι” (cub). As often happens, the Greek multisyllable word gets contracted to a monosyllable English equivalent. Here, “κου-β” gets us “cub”!

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