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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This past Sunday, Baltimore’s mayor lifted the curfew she placed on the city in face of the unrest that followed Freddie Gray’s funeral. The tragic death of Freddie Gray, who later died from injuries sustained while in police custody, sparked fire, in some cases literal ones, over racial inequality and police brutality in the community there, as we’ve seen in other American cities, including Ferguson, Mo., whose city name I wrote about last August.

Sparks start fires, and if etymology is any measure, curfews attempt to put them out, apparently.

Some fires you don't want to snuff. "Curfew." Doodle by @andrescalo.
“Curfew.” Doodle by @andrescalo.


The Oxford English Dictionary (OED) attests curfew (corfu, in Middle English, among other forms) in the early 14th century. The word is adopted from the French (Old French, also among other forms, has cuevre-fu), ultimately joining two words. The first is couvre, an imperative verb meaning “cover,” from which English gets the same word. The second is the noun feu, “fire.”

The French couvre comes from the Latin coöperīre“to cover up,” fusing the intensifying com– (“with”) and operīre, “to cover.” Covert is so descended, as is kerchief, from the French for “cover-head.” Feu is also from Latin. Here, the etymon is focus, “hearth” or “fireplace” as well as “home” and “family” in figurative senses, and source of English’s own focus.

curfew, then, is a “cover-fire.” The French expression mirrors medieval Latin terms, the OED points out, such as ignitegium and pyritegium, also words literally meaning”cover-fire.” Do you recognize that “teg” portion of the word? It’s from tegere, “to cover,” which we saw last week in my post on thug.

So, why “cover-fire”? The OED explains it was:

A regulation in force in mediæval Europe by which at a fixed hour in the evening, indicated by the ringing of a bell, fires were to be covered over or extinguished; also, the hour of evening when this signal was given, and the bell rung for the purpose.

The OED goes on:

The primary purpose of the curfew appears to have been the prevention of conflagrations arising from domestic fires left unextinguished at night.

Eventually, the original purpose of the curfew gave way to evening bells, historically issued around eight or nine o’clock, for other kinds of city orders, hence its use for the restrictions the word names today.

curfew might test the patience of 17-year-olds on Saturday nights, but, as its etymology reminds us–as Baltimore reminds us–a curfew was and is a serious business.

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