Why are cobwebs called cobwebs? What distinguishes them from spider webs?

Why are cobwebs called cobwebs? What distinguishes them from spider webs?

— Roy H., Medford

Cobwebs are spider webs, Roy. In the modern sense they're more likely to be dust-covered wisps of spider silk in the corners of our homes, no longer in use by a living spider. We often use the word to mean a single strand of spider silk rather than an entire web, but either way that thing comes from a spider.

In the late Middle Ages, "cob" was simply the English word for "spider." It was derived from "coppe," which in the 14th century meant "head."

The shift from head to spider is thought to go back to the Old English "aftercop" spider. "After" was from "atter," or "poison," and "coppe" meant "head." So the sense was "poison head."

Either way, we find a broom in the garage works wonders.

Send questions to "Since You Asked," Mail Tribune Newsroom, P.O. Box 1108, Medford, OR 97501; by fax to 541-776-4376; or by e-mail to youasked@mailtribune.com. We're sorry, but the volume of questions received prevents us from answering all of them.