Tuesday, October 7, 2014


"Why are they called napkins," my grandson asks, smoothing the expanse of whiteness out over his lap. "They should be called lapkins because they go on your lap."
"Yes," I say, my eyes brightening. "That would be perfect."
"But I imagine the word napkin in very old and probably borrowed from a French word, like nappe..."
"Borrowed?" he says, puzzled.
"Lots of English words are borrowed from other languages. I'll find out."
And it turns out to be true.
Napkin is a Middle English word. So it's old.
And it was borrowed. From the Old French word 'nappe' which means tablecloth or table covering, which had been borrowed in kind, from the Latin word mappa. Then the diminutive, 'kin' for little, borrowed from the Dutch, was added for good measure. Interestingly, the Old French already had a diminutive. It was naperon from which apron later emerged. A small covering.
So 'napkin' means, a small covering as well.
I love how words change over time.
I love words.
I always loved that page at the beginning of the Readers Digest. I think it was called Testing Your Word Power or something like that. It was a multiple choice word test. The part I liked best was reading the origin or the word. Seeing the Latin. Seeing how the word was made up of bits and pieces, cobbled together.
I always wondered who the first bright soul was that coined a word.
And marveled that it caught on.
And lasted.
Like Lapkin, a little covering for your lap.