Saturday, April 30, 2011

WOTD: Collops

As attentive readers will know, I am currently reading C.S. Lewis’s translation of the Aeneid. This, by the way, is really wonderful. Brilliant, in fact. The best translation since Gavin Douglas’s 16th-century rendition into Early Modern Scots. The more of it I read, the more I lament that it is incomplete; it’s a must-read for admirers of Lewis and/or Virgil.

Anyway, I came across a pretty uncommon word in the Lewis translation — two rare words, actually, but one of them, collops, got me thinking about etymology. First, let me give you Lewis’s lines:
While they about their meal bestir them and lay bare
The ribs and draw the numbles out and at the flame
Roast the yet quivering collops of the fatted game [1]
Isn’t that a tasty translation? For the sake of comparison, here is Robert Fitzgerald’s rather more mundane rendering (no pun intended): “They skinned the deer, bared ribs and viscera, / Then one lot sliced the flesh and skewered it / On spits, all quivering […]” [2]. Both translations are pretty accurate, but Lewis’s is much more, well, visceral. The choice of “numbles” for the Latin viscera and “quivering collops” for frusta […] trementia verubus gives Lewis the edge, at least according to my aesthetic.

So, numbles and collop are pretty rare words. Editor Andres Reyes includes them in his glossary — a good thing, since most readers, including me, will not be familiar with either word — defining them as “entrails” and “a slice of meat”, respectively. The second word caught my eye. Can you guess why?

When I see an unfamiliar word, the first thing I try to do is determine its meaning from my knowledge of Indo-European etymological principles. Possible cognate forms swim into my mind, often revealing the meaning and origin of the word — but occasionally leading me down the primrose path. In this case, seeing that a collop is a slice of meat, what would you think of? If you’re me, it’s Italian scaloppe (think of veal scaloppini, a dish of thinly sliced veal), Spanish escalope, French escalope, all meaning a “cutlet, cut of meat”. The derivation is from Latin scalpere “to carve, cut”, cp. English scalpel. (One is tempted to think of the Native American practice of scalping, but this is a red herring. Back to this later.)

So this seems like an obvious etymology for English collop, right? Well, I think so, but my etymological dictionaries say no! Are they right, or am I? Let’s take a closer look at the evidence.

One turns to the Oxford English Dictionary in vain (to paraphrase Tolkien). It says “derivation obscure” and gives only a couple of cognate forms, echoing an earlier scholar’s suggestion that the first element might be col– “coal”. Walter Skeat says the same, more assertively, giving the Middle English forms coloppe, col-hoppe, and (by way of analogy) the Swedish glö(d)hoppa “a cake baked over gledes or hot coals”. Ernest Weekley cites the same antecedent forms and also suggests the first syllable is “coal”, but the second (he says) is obscure. He gives the Old Swedish kol-huppadher “roasted on coals”, and he adds that the word originally meant “bacon and eggs”. Hmm. This agrees with Tolkien’s gloss in A Middle English Vocabulary, coloppes “collops, eggs fried on bacon”. And finally, the Oxford Dictionary of English Etymology recaps all of the above, but again with an emphasis on bacon and eggs. The bacon, it would seem, is actually the collop (the slice of meat).

Is this right? Or is it possible that collop = “slice of meat” and collop = “dish roasted on coals; eggs and bacon” were once two entirely separate words, only coincidentally homonymic? It is extraordinarily hard to resist an etymology of collop from Latin, with those conspicuous and phonologically sound cognate forms in the Romance languages.

This also put me in mind of the word scallop. Might this refer to the “(slice of) meat” inside the bivalve? With the original sense being “cut, carve, slice”, if the word scallop is just as old as collop, then no, probably not — but, if collop came to mean simply “meat”, losing the sense of slicing and carving, and scallop is attested much later, then maybe. So I looked up scallop too. According to the OED, (e)scallop, (e)scollop goes back to Old French escalope “shell”, and it entered the Romance lexis as a borrowing from the Germanic branch, exemplary of which the OED gives Middle Dutch schelpe “shell”. Hmm, that’s plausible, but the first attested use of this word is a century later than collop, so my theory that scallop = collop could hold water too. At least as much water as could fill a scallop shell.

Couldn’t it? What do you think?

Oh, and back to the stereotypical Native American practice of scalping an enemy … It’s a funny coincidence that the verb scalp (i.e., to remove the hair from the scalp), arising through back formation from the noun, should also resemble the same root giving us scalpel, and suggesting cutting or carving. The noun scalp comes from the Germanic “shell” root I talked about above, suggesting the skull is your brain’s shell. This is analogous to Vulgar Latin testa “head”, with the earlier sense of an earthen pot, a shell, and even a shellfish. And this is the reason we have Italian testa, French tête “head”, but Spanish cabeza, German Kopf (cognate to Latin caput). This root also originally meant “a drinking vessel”, and I’ve written about it before.

It’s all a mess of metaphors and poetic diction, isn’t it? What a tangled web of words we weave when first we practice to conceive!

[1] Reyes, A.T., ed. C.S. Lewis’s Lost Aeneid. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2011, p. 51, ll. 210–2.

[2] Virgil. The Aeneid. Trans. Robert Fitzgerald. New York: Vintage, 1990, p. 11, ll. 288–90.


  1. I've known both words for some time, but leaving aside the question of eating numble pie, I have definitely heard collops used in Devon to mean chunky slices of meat; in my lifetime. No, I can't recall who said it but I've heard it. Also I have recently passed it in Dickens, but as I am a mere two volumes away from finishing a complete reread of Dickens I am not sure I could pinoint where that was either. How unhlepful of me.

  2. I’m impressed at your vocabulary! I know them now, and won’t forget them, but I’d never come across them before. At least, not that I remember. I could see collops surviving even to the present day in more rural communities, where food is not yet mass-produced or shipped in from distant continents, and where people still value home-cooking. The other word, numbles, is a bit too specialized though, eh?

  3. How fascinating! Kalops is a traditional (and common; we were often served it in school) Swedish dish and checking its etymology, I find it being a loan from collops. My dictionary claims it to mean "slice of meat" and notes its probable antecedent col + hoppe, comparing it with Old Swedish aeg kolhuppad, eggs fried on (hot) coals. It also notes the connection to glödhoppa, either bread baked on the coals or on a hot griddle (I ate little but glödhoppor when I studied in England, since there was no oven for baking any other kind of bread, and no decent bread to be found in the nearby shops), or grilled mutton. The hoppa (Eng. jump) part is here explained by the movement of the foodstuff on the coals. I would never have made the connection between kalops and glödhoppor, however. Thanks, Jason!

  4. I'm feeling faint! Surely there can't be any etymological connection between glodhoppor and clodhopper (a clumsy rustic person)? I had assumed the latter to be related to stumbling over clods of earth. This must be a coincidence of sound, right?

  5. StefanE, thanks for your comments! I’m glad you found the post thought-provoking. I am still not totally convinced of the “coal-hopper” / “glede-hopper” etymology for English collop, are you?

    And Sue, no, probably not, but it’s fun to think so! :)

  6. "Collops" sounds T. H. White-y but I can't pin it down; but "numbles" at least is in The Ill-Made Knight.

  7. Have just seen collops again in Dickens - his travels in America. At one dinner they are served 'smoking collops' though I don't believe he meant they were alight!

  8. These words are in lots of older works — e.g., I find now that Sir Walter Scott used both. But though numbles may be just about gone from the language, it isn’t quite. The very familiar phrase “humble pie” preserves it. Originally, a numble pie, i.e., a pie made out of a deer’s organ meats (or later, that of cows and pigs), it became an umble pie, and then by “restoration” of an assumed dropped aitch, humble pie. See Walter Skeat’s Notes on English Etymology, Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1901, p. 200, for more details.

    This kind of story is why I love philology. :)

  9. Having looked around a bit for early examples of collop, I am only getting less convinced that there is a connection between collop and glödhoppa. The Old Swedish root for hoppa (to jump) has an initial H which seems rare in the ME spellings. Surely, it would be more common in the early examples? And why would there be a loan from the Swedish at that time? From Danish or Norwegian, that I could understand, except OED lists an example from Piers Plowman, whose writer would presumably not have had a dialect affected by the Viking influence (I must admit that I have forgotten just where the dialectal border went, but Langland ought to have been raised too far to the south and west).

    But if not from "coal-jumper" ... whence else?

  10. Yes, StefanE, this is where I find myself too. The argument that has been advanced for an etymology signifying “coal-hopper” (analogous to the Swedish meaning “glede-hopper”) seems valid in its structure, but that does not automatically make it sound (i.e., actually true).

    Piers Plowman, as you’ve found, is the earliest attested use of the word. The poem exhibits features of the West Midland dialect of Middle English, so you’re right: the likelihood of Scandinavian influence is much less than if the poem were East Midlands or Northern.

    The earliest form, in Piers Plowman, B. vi. 287, is a plural spelled coloppes. But there are something like fifty surviving MSS. of the poem, in which the word is variously spelled colopis, colloppes, and colhoppes. Skeat asserts that colhoppes must be the correct form, on the strength of the gloss collepe = Latin carbonella in the Promptorium Parvulorum — but this glossary dates from the 1440s, while Piers Plowman is close to a century earlier. The argument, therefore, isn’t totally convincing, is it? Not to mention, the fact that Prompt. Parv. also glosses carbonella as steyk.

    With such a proliferation of spellings — not at all uncommon in the Middle English period — how do we know there weren’t two separate words? Or that the original sense of collop came under the influence of a separate Scandinavian word and was rebracketed?

    So, to answer your question — “if not from “coal-jumper’ … whence else?” — what do you think of the theory I advanced in the main post, above? That is, could collop, meaning a slice of meat, derive from Latin scalpere “to carve, cut”, by way of Anglo-Norman French (cf. French escalope)?

    To make this case, one thing to explain is the loss of the initial s, and this is not so difficult to deal with philologically. The other is to deal with the proposed etymology of Old French escalope as meaning “shell”, and borrowed from the Germanic, and I think I can deal with this too.

  11. "... C.S. Lewis’s translation of the Aeneid..." ?

    Did he make one? Why have not I heard of it?

  12. Yes, Lewis made a partial translation of The Aeneid, but it was only published this past summer. Many people were unaware of it, not just you. :)

  13. Partial? Which songs? Does it include what I read back at University:

    Sic fatur lacrimans, classique immittit habenas
    Et tandem Euboicis Cumarum adlabitur undis ...

  14. There is ample information about what the book contains in the review I wrote for Mythprint, which you can read here, as well as all over the Internet, really. I’m surprised you hadn’t heard about this before. But a simple Google search will turn up quite a bit of information. Another review is forthcoming in the new issue of Mythlore.

  15. Gratum te mihi fecisti hoc vinculo dando!