Under the etymological cover of “coverage”

The roots of coverage span from medieval fire prevention to famous Scottish diaries. 

On Monday, the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office (CBO) estimated that 24 million Americans will lose coverage over the next decade under the Republican plan to replace Obamacare. Let’s follow up on last week’s look at insurance by reading over the etymological terms of coverage.

Maybe our healthcare coverage went under here? Image from pixabay.com.

The wordage of coverage

Insurance-wise, coverage refers to “all the risks covered by the terms of an insurance contract,” as Merriam-Webster defines it. This use, the Oxford English Dictionary (OED) finds, is first recorded in the 1912 Agents’ Records from Hartford, Connecticut: “There will be nineteen policyholders disillusionized and disgusted with the limited coverage contract.” I suspect there will be many, many more such policyholders today.

This coverage, though, may not have been English’s first go at the word. The Barnhart Dictionary of Etymology notes that coverage named “a charge for a booth at fair” as early as 1642. The Online Etymology Dictionary puts it even earlier, in the mid 1400s. I had trouble tracking down any further information about this word, though it certainly calls ups the modern sense of “paying a cover” to see a band or get into a club.

Coverage’s basic plan, as you probably guessed, is the word cover plus -age. What is this -age? It’s all over English: beverage, bondage, breakage, luggage, marriage, message, orphanage, and signage, to name a mere few. The suffix forms mass and abstract nouns as well as denotes action or condition. In recent years, it’s enjoyed some more humorous productivity. There was a lot of ‘Tweetage’ when the Oscars flubbed the Best Picture winner. People got into some serious bracketage when the NCAA release its 2017 March Madness basketball rankings. This –age is from French, reshaped from the Latin, noun-forming suffix –aticum.

Broad coverage

As for cover, it’s been covering a lot of different ideas in the English language for a long time. The OED cites cover for “to shield, protect, shelter” as early as 1275. By 1300 we have “to conceal,” revealing cover’s connection to covert. A batch of religious citations around 1340 shows cover applied to clothes and caps. And come 1382, cover was covering pots with lids and spreading jams over bread. The noun cover is early, too, referring especially to concealing/protective outer layers by 1300. 

The sense of cover behind insurance coverage (to defray costs, to meet or compensate a liability or risk, to protect by insurance) emerges in the record by the 1820s. Here, the OED cites The Journal of Sir Walter Scott, which the legendary author kept, in extraordinary and often heart-wrenching detail, from 1825 until he died in 1832. On March 23, 1828, Scott writes that payment for his Tales from a Grandfather “will prettily cover my London journey.” Scott faced some serious financial woes in the late 1820s; his novels saved him from ruin.

For a lecture, say, to cover the extent of some subject is by 1793 while for a newspaper to cover a story is by 1893. To cover, or “defend,” someone in sports? That’s dated to 1907. To cover someone else’s song? 1965. To cover, or “substitute for,” someone’s class? 1970.

Latin’s got it covered

Just as we get -age from French, so too we get cover. It derives from the Old French covrir (cover, protect, conceal, etc.), formed from the Latin cooperire. That looks like cooperate, but the two are not related. And recover, as in “get better,” is from the same Latin root that yields recuperate.

The Latin cooperire meant “to cover entirely.” The co- (related to com-) comes from cum (with), here intensifying a sense of completeness (together > altogether). This operire meant “to close, cover,” opposite of aperire (open). With a different prefix, dis- (away, undo) operire also gives us discover. The original sense of discover in English (1330s) was to betray someone’s secret identity.

The French covrir shows up in some surprising other places. Kerchief? It’s literally from the French for “cover head” (Old French couvrechief). The cloth started out as a women’s head-covering.  And curfew, as I previously explored on the blog, means “cover fire” (Old French cuevrefeu). It originally sounded an evening bell in medieval Europe telling townspeople to put out their fires to prevent bigger conflagrations.

With the CBO’s score for the healthcare plan, many Republicans might be scrambling to cover their heads and put out the fires – or else too many more Americans, having lost their coverage, will be coughing into handkerchiefs.

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young & old

Fast Mash

  • Old, through Old English’s alda and the Proto-Germanic *althas, derives from the Proto-Indo-European *al-, “to nourish” or “grow”
  • Some cognates include: alderman, alimentary, altitude, elder, haughty, oboe, proletarian, and prolific
  • Young, through Old English’s geong, derives from the Proto-Indo-European *ieu-, which may mean “vital force” or “youthful vigor”
  • Cognates span the Indo-European language family. from Sanskrit’s yava to the Cornish yowynk 

It’s a week into 2014. Which means I’ve morphed a couple of 3’s into 4’s, haven’t completely bailed on my resolutions, and still have Auld Lang Syne stuck in my head. The Scots’ phrase auld lang syne, that New Year’s anthem from Robert Burns’ titular poem, literally means “old long since”–or “the good old times,” as Merriam-Webster puts it best. It turns out old has had some good times, indeed, etymologically speaking–and is still around to tell them.


Old is Old English’s ald, just with some wrinkles on its vowel. It comes from the West Germanic *althas or *alða, descendant of the Proto-Indo-European *al-, a verb that makes being old, well, possible: “to grow” or “nourish.” Elder and alderman are some Germanic variations of *althas that have aged well.

In Latin, the root grew up to become alere: “to feed,” “nourish,” “raise, “support,” “nurse,” and “breast-feed,” among others.

The inchoative or inceptive form of alere, or the form showing that something is beginning or becoming, was alescere, “to be nourished” and thus “to grow up.” Affixed with that prolific prefix ad– (“to,” “toward”), Latin got adolescere, giving English both adolescsent and adult (the verb’s past participle is adultus).

You might also recognize alimentary (“dealing with nourishment,” as in the canal), exalt (read: in high esteem), and altitude, from altus, or (grown) tall. Through French evolutions, altus has given English a few less conspicuous heirs: haughty (think haute couture), enhance (from a verb originally denoting “to elevate”), and oboe.

Yes, oboe. Oboe is the Italian way of spelling the French hautbois, a compound literally meaning “high wood.” Bush and box are cognates to boisApparently, the oboe has the highest register of all the woodwinds (Online Etymology Dictionary). 

You might also be surprised by abolish. From the Latin abolere, abolish fuses ab– (another prolific prefix, “away”) and alescere to portray destruction as “away from nourishment.” Or Althea officialis, the scientific name for the marshmallow plant historically used for its healing (that is, nourishing) properties, especially in gummy, sweetened food applications that inspired today’s nutritionally empty treat.

And speaking of prolific, there is…prolific. Quite literally, the adjective is from the Latin for “making offspring.” Proliferate, proletarian (the humblest citizens in Ancient Rome, who “served the state simply by having children” to populate the Republic, the Online Etymology Dictionary tells us), Marxism’s proletariat–all from Latin’s proles, in turn from the Proto-Indo-European *pro-al, with pro– indicating “forth.” Hence, offspring as something “nourished forth.”  


Our offspring. Our children. Our youth. Our young. The ultimate fountain of young‘s youth is the Proto-Indo-European *ieu- or *yeu-, meaning “young.” The Online Etymology Dictionary sexes the root up, though, glossing it as “vital force” or “youthful vigor.” Vigorous, to be sure, if its own lexical proliferation is any measure. All the following cognates, which i take from Partridge, have stayed “young”:

  • Sanskrit, yuva
  • Avestan, yava
  • Latin, juvenis
  • Old Church Slavonic, junu
  • Lithuanian, jaunas
  • Welsh, ieuanc; Old Welsh, iouenc
  • Old Irish, oac and oc (which lives on in the obscure gallowglass)
  • Gaelic, og
  • Cornish, iouenc, iunc, yowynk, and yonk
  • Gothic, juggs
  • Old Frisian, Old Saxon, and Old High German, jung (see also the Dutch-rooted younker, joining jonc, “young,” and here, “master”)
  • Middle High German, junc
  • German, jung
  • Old Norse, ungr
  • Old English, geong and gung

The Latin juvenis has given English junior, juvenile, rejuvenate, juvenal, June (from the goddess Juno, perhaps due to her divine jurisdiction over new moons) and more recently, juvie, a colloquial term for juvenile detention centers.

And In youth, I think it is worth noting, we see at work the suffix -th, “denoting action or process” or “quality and condition” (Oxford) and hailing from a Proto-Germanic suffix *-itho and Proto-Indo-European *-ito. Bath, birth, death, growth, flith, health, length, mirth, strength, truth–youth, with yet more childhood friends.

The Young and the Restless

English etymology must be reading Macbeth. In words, what means “foul” can somehow mean “fair.” The ending is the beginning. The old are a youth culture. Words have that paradoxical way about them, don’t they? They can be so stubborn yet so flexible. Forms change. Meanings change. Words are restless. But as etymology reminds us, a word can have a core personality, if you will, that stays about it, young or old.

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