Our household has begun to use, in fun, the word counterpane. It’s an older word for bedspread, familiar to us from reading Willa Cather and Herman Melville. The word’s most famous appearance in literature must be in the title of the unforgettable fourth chapter of Moby-Dick: “The Counterpane.”
I began to wonder: counterpane, windowpane. Is a pane then a panel? Is the idea that a bedspread is made of such pieces, sewn together to make a whole? That sounded plausible. But why counter?
The Oxford English Dictionary has the answers to these questions. Counterpane is “an alteration of counterpoint,” with the second element of that word made into pane, which derives from the French pan and the Latin pannus, meaning “cloth.” The pane in windowpane (“a division of a window”) goes back to the same Latin pannus. How strange to see cloth grow transparent and harden.
That clears up pane. But why counter? The OED explains its history, which begins with the
Old French contrepointe . . . , synonym of countepointe, both forms being apparently corruptions of Old French cuilte-pointe, coulte-pointe, coute-pointe, repr[esenting] Latin culcita puncta . . . lit[erally] “quilt stabbed or stitched through, quilted mattress.” The first element is thus the same word as quilt.So a counterpane is a quilt.
But what about countertop, or as the OED spells it, counter-top? Where does it fit in? It doesn’t. Its counter derives from the Anglo-Norman counteour, countour, which (omitting many steps) goes back to the Latin computātōrium: computāre, meaning “to compute, count,” and a suffix. A counter is first “anything used in counting or keeping account” and later “a banker’s or money-changer’s table; also, the table in a shop on which the money paid by purchasers is counted out, and across which goods are delivered.”
This post, I hope, has delivered the goods, or at least some of them, in over-the-counter fashion.