My wife was reading a story in the paper and ran across the word cockloft; she asked me if I knew it, and I said I didn’t but would look it up. Happily, the OED updated its entry in September 2019; it means “A small upper loft; a small room or apartment directly under the ridge of a roof, usually accessed by a ladder” (c1580 tr. Bugbears i. ii: “They gate in by lowe & so in to the cockelofte ouer my old masters head”) and has a figurative sense as “the type of a high secluded place” (1694 P. A. Motteux tr. F. Rabelais 5th Bk. Wks. v. ix. 43 “Unnestle the Angels from their Cockloft”) and a colloquial sense as “A person’s mind or head” (“Originally only in phrases indicating a person’s empty-headedness or stupidity, as a person’s cockloft is unfurnished”). The most interesting thing about it is its etymology: “Apparently an alteration of coploft n., by folk-etymological association with cock n.¹, as if originally a place in the rafters where cockerels roosted; compare hen-loft at hen n.¹ Compounds 1b.” And coploft (1571 in A. Dyer Inventories Worcs. Tradesmen in Miscellany II. 52 “The orrell..a bill, a chaire and a fourme with other ymplementes there and in a coploft above in the forstrete”) is a straightforward joining of cop “The top or summit of anything” + loft; the entry for cop hasn’t been updated since 1893, so its etymology is a little quaint:

Old English cop, copp top, summit; generally thought to be identical with cop n.¹ [‘drinking-vessel, cup’], since in Middle Dutch cop developed (after 12th cent.) the sense ‘skull’ and then ‘head’, and kopf was in Middle High German ‘cup’, in modern German ‘head’. Compare also the analogy of Latin testa pot, shell, skull, Italian testa, French tête head. But in Old English the sense ‘skull’ or even ‘head’ is not known, only that of ‘top, summit’, which hardly runs parallel with the words in the other languages, besides being so much earlier. It is possible that the two words are distinct or only related farther back.
(One might suppose that kop(p) top, was the native Old English word, and copp of the Northumbrian Gospels < Old Norse kopp’r: but the whole subject of the history and origin of these words in Germanic is very obscure: see Kluge, and Franck, also cup n.) There was also an Old French coppe, summit (compare coperoun n.), by which this word may have been influenced.

The word occurs in many names of hills (compare sense 1b), as Coulderton Cop, Kinniside Cop in Cumberland, Meltham Cop near Huddersfield, Mowl Cop in Cheshire, Fin Cop in Derbyshire, etc.

I don’t know what the apostrophe is doing in “kopp’r”; I guess that’s how they rolled in 1893.


  1. Also, Spion Kop. I always liked that name (I like Ladysmith, too.)

  2. That stupid article gave the Afrikaans pronunciation but not the English ones, so I had to fix it. But yes, I always liked that name too.

  3. Lars Mathiesen says

    Maybe they thought that ON koppr was originally bisyllabic, but 1893 is a bit late for that. Icelandic has koppur, but diachronically that u is intrusive.

  4. ktschwarz says

    That kopp’r does look funny. Sometimes the old OED used a hyphen between a stop and a final r in an Old Norse word (e.g. kamp-r beard, moustache; klædd-r past participle of klæða to clothe; klett-r cliff, crag; kald-r cold), but I haven’t noticed any others with an apostrophe. And the same Old Norse word is cited in the etymologies of cap, n.3 ‘a wooden bowl or dish … formerly used as a drinking vessel’ and † cop, n.1 ‘a drinking-vessel, a cup’, where it’s spelled kopp-r. So I think the apostrophe was an 1893 typo.

    They weren’t consistent with the hyphen, either; the same Old Norse etymon is sometimes found both ways, e.g.
    cam, n.2 < Old Norse kamb-r crest, serrated ridge
    comb, n. cognates include Old Norse kambr

  5. Trond Engen says

    The uppermost joist between the rafters in wooden roof truss is called haneband or hanebjelke in Norwegian. I’ve assumed that’s because that’s where the rooster is roosting. Google tells me that haneloft exists in Danish for a loft between and under the roof trusses. Why should the English word be an alteration of coploft rather than the same simple idea as in Scandinavian?

  6. Lars Mathiesen says

    ODS tells me that hanebjælker are the horizontal joists that some (triangular) roof frames have at a point higher than the base. “Presumably because poultry uses them for sitting,” they say. Additionally, hanebjælkeloft is when you put flooring on those for storage. “Confer E cockloft” they say.

  7. Trond Engen says


    (I should have thought of the ODS.)

  8. Why should the English word be an alteration of coploft rather than the same simple idea as in Scandinavian?

    You’re coming at it from the wrong angle — it’s exactly the “simple idea” that made it such an attractive eggcorn.

  9. > Also, Spion Kop

    Which is the origin of the twitter name of one of the premier sources of Ukraine war news—Oryx Spioenkop. I took it to be spy-head till he explained it as Spy Hill.

  10. Trond Engen says

    Hat: You’re coming at it from the wrong angle — it’s exactly the “simple idea” that made it such an attractive eggcorn.

    I understand that. But since the simple idea is attested just outside English without the eggcorn, isn’t it more economical to assume that it’s a shared idea? German also has der Hahnenbalken and Dutch de hanebalke.

  11. That involves taking coploft as a pure coincidence. Are you happy with that?

  12. Lars Mathiesen says

    There are no coincidences, of course, and since cockloft looks so logical it could quickly replace coploft by the same process that makes eggcorns thrive. But logically, the first person to say cockloft may not ever have heard coploft, they could have come up with the idea from scratch as in the other languages, and if that is the case it’s a deep existentialistic question whether you can call it an eggcorn.

  13. The explanation of cockloft as a folk-etymological alteration of coploft was offered already by Samuel Johnson in later editions of his dictionary (here 1785):

    COˊCKLOFT. n.s. [cock and loft.] The room over the garret, in which fowls are supposed to roost, unless it be rather corrupted from coploft, the cop or top of the house.

    If the lowest floors already burn,
    Cocklofts and garrets soon will take their turn.

    Dryden’s Juvenal

    My garrets, or rather my cocklofts indeed, are very indifferently furnished; but they are rooms to lay lumber in.


    But coploft itself is not entered, although cop “the head; the top of anything” is. As the OED citation shows, Johnson himself used cockloft in his own writings (The Rambler, nº 117, bottom of page 156 here).

  14. I assume yous are taking it that this is too dull to be worth mentioning:

    Cockcroft (Alt Cockroft, Cocroft): Topographic surname from Old English cocc (“cock, rooster”) + croft (“enclosed field”).

  15. David Marjanović says

    Old English cocc (“cock, rooster”)

    Really? The French word was borrowed that early?

    …Oh. Wiktionnaire:

    Terme de formation onomatopéique attesté dès le VIe siècle en bas latin sous la forme coccus (Loi Salique) et qui a supplanté l’ancien français jal représentant le latin gallus. L’onomatopée imitant le cri du coq est elle-même attestée en latin impérial coco coco.

    So maybe it’s a North Sea Germanic phenomenon in the first place.

  16. Yep. [etymonline]

    “male of the domestic fowl,” from Old English cocc “male bird,” Old French coc (12c., Modern French coq), Old Norse kokkr, all of echoic origin. Compare Albanian kokosh “cock,” Greek kikkos, Sanskrit kukkuta, Malay kukuk. “Though at home in English and French, not the general name either in Teutonic or Romanic; the latter has derivatives of L. gallus, the former of OTeut. *hanon-” [OED]; compare hen.

  17. Trond Engen says

    If poultry were recent in Germanic lands, as recently discussed, it would be natural if it got different names in different regions, depending on patterns of trade and cultural dispersion, much like Erdapfeln.

    Edit: Or, as arguably with kartofler, be known under different names until one or other becomes dominant in a dialect.

  18. Trond Engen says

    I wonder if cockpit is related too. The little room for the pilot on the top of the flying machine has more in common with a narrow room just below the rooftop than with a pit for a cockfight. And both rooms can be used by a sniper.

  19. Trond Engen says

    I meant to note that the first attestations of coploft and cockloft are virtually contemporaneous in the late 16th century. The former isn’t seen again except for the quoted etymological speculation by Samuel Johnson in 1785. That makes it a hapax in my legomenon.

    But 1893 was a long time ago. 16th century attestations in the OED get antedated all the time.

  20. But logically, the first person to say cockloft may not ever have heard coploft, they could have come up with the idea from scratch as in the other languages

    Logically, the word could have been invented from scratch, and the similarity to “cock” and “loft” is a pure coincidence. I prefer to go with what I (and the good folks at the OED) consider most plausible.

  21. Google Books suggests “Inventories of Worcestershire Landed Gentry, 1537-1786” includes one coploft and two cocklofts, whereas “Probate inventories of Worcester tradesmen, 1545-1614” has one coploft and no cockloft. Other coplofts are in the estates of Humphrey Littleton of Naunton 1690 and Thomas Campion of Arundel 1611.

  22. None of the other Germanic languages mentioned has a cock in their words for cockloft. If English have borrowed the word wouldn’t it be henloft?

  23. David Marjanović says

    That makes it a hapax in my legomenon.

    This sounds so natural I overlooked it for a whole second. I consider my day saved.

    None of the other Germanic languages mentioned has a cock in their words for cockloft.

    All of the ones mentioned above do: the cock is *han-an- (G Hahn, prefix form Hahnen-; the second h is just there to spell out much later vowel lengthening phenomena), the hen is *han-ja- (G Henne with umlaut and West Germanic consonant stretching, both triggered by the *j).

  24. But that’s not the point. English usually does not calque, it borrows.

  25. David Marjanović says

    Oh – has anybody suggested that cockloft could be borrowed?

    (I thought cock was borrowed from French coq, but as shown above that’s by no means clear.)

  26. No, sorry. It was “same simple idea”. But for that you do not need Germanic parallels…

  27. Trond Engen says

    The roof truss with a “cock beam”* is younger than Common Germanic, or the Anglo-Saxon invasion. In Northern Europe it’s probably no older than high medieval. That would mean that a common origin of the terms would mean a calque, but I’ll concede that English rarely calques terms of trade from Germanic languages**.

    * The modern standard term is collar beam. I don’t know if other terms exist locally or did exist historically.

    ** While hanebjelke etc. is the standard term in Scandinavian, and undoubtedly calqued from Some German, the modern German and Dutch standard terms are Kehlbalken and trekplaat respectively.

  28. @Trond Engen: The origin of cockpit is unrelated. It was a nautical term from the Age of Sail: “the location of controls of a vessel… traditionally an open well in the deck of a boat outside any deckhouse or cabin.” The linked Wikipedia page has a image, presumably chosen to illustrate the visual similarity to a cockfighting ring that inspired the name.

    I had thought that cockloft might have appeared in The King of Elfland’s Daughter, since in the second half of the novel, the houses of Erl are subject to an infestation of small trolls living in their raftered attics. However, while there are mentions of haylofts, pigeon-lofts, and lumber-lofts, those are all literal descriptions, and they are never called “cocklofts.”

  29. Kate Bunting says

    I came across the word in Rosemary Sutcliff’s 1953 novel ‘Simon’. After recovering from a head wound (in the English Civil War), the protagonist is asked “How’s the old cockloft?”

  30. Excellent quote!

  31. Rosemary Sutcliff’s 1953 novel ‘Simon’
    That brings back memories. I read “Simon” and her three novels set in Roman Britain as a boy (I must have been 10-12) in German translation, and for a while she was one if my favourite authors (besides Karl May).

  32. The torii, a gateway erected on the approach to every Shinto shrine, may be derived from the Indian word torana. While the Indian term denotes a gateway, the Japanese characters can be translated as “bird perch”.

    More at the link:

    Another bird-related Japanese architectural term is 鴨居 ‘duck perch’
    かもい【鴨居】 ローマ(kamoi)
    a narrow board continuing around an entire Japanese-style room and covering the top slots into which sliding doors, shoji, and fusuma fit.


    There are various theories as to the origin of the word, including that the word “Kamii”, because of its location at the top, was changed to “Kamoi” that it was made in the shape of a duck, a water bird, to prevent fire, and that it was changed to “Kamoi” in contrast to “Torii” at shrines because it is the entrance to a room.

    Some pictures (the arrows point to kamoi at the top, shikii at the bottom):

    しきい【敷居】 ローマ(shikii)
    〔入口の〕 a threshold; a sill; 〔戸の〕 a doorsill; 〔窓の〕 a windowsill.

  33. I was just looking at the preview of the book being discussed under Fanimingo and Civility — and several pages before the passage quoted there, it gives a novel etymology of “cockloft”!

    The builders always intended the garret to “serve for a prison.” Colonists call the prison attic the “cock-loft” or “cockle-loft,” because in summer it grows so hot it resembles a “cockle,” the furnace of a hop or malt kiln.

    That can’t be right, I wonder what the source is? (There’s a footnote, but the preview won’t show the notes.) Any citations for “cockle-loft” would be interesting, since the OED lists it as a spelling used only by one writer: “The origin of the form cockleloft is unclear; it is attested only in the works of Anthony Wood (compare quot. 1646 at sense 1a).”

  34. Oh yeah — I noticed that when I got to it and meant to mention it here, but got caught up in the story and forgot. Thanks for adding it to the thread! The footnote says: “‘Cock-loft, n.’ and ‘Cockle, n. 5,’ Oxford English Dictionary,” but that doesn’t explain the given etymology, since the OED doesn’t offer it. (Turns out there are 8 nouns “cockle” and 10 nouns “cock”!)

  35. … *that’s* the footnote? That doesn’t support anything in the paragraph at all! How does the author even know that somebody used the word “cockloft” for the prison? Is the source buried in some previous footnote about the prison? Bad footnoting, imho.

    The OED’s revised etymology is a recovery of long-lost evidence: coploft itself was a new entry in September 2019. It was so obscure that the original OED missed it (or maybe tried and failed to document it). It did get recorded in Wright’s Dictionary of Obsolete and Provincial English, and Palmer’s Folk-etymology: A Dictionary of Verbal Corruptions (1890) cites Wright in support of the coploft > cockloft origin; but then it was forgotten, and all subsequent dictionaries just repeated the “rooster” origin (sometimes qualified with “probably” or “perhaps”), unaware of any alternative. Until now!

    All three citations for coploft are from inventories, and so was Wright’s. Another case of lexicographic treasure buried in the most boring sources. That must have taken some sleuthing.

  36. … *that’s* the footnote? That doesn’t support anything in the paragraph at all! How does the author even know that somebody used the word “cockloft” for the prison? Is the source buried in some previous footnote about the prison? Bad footnoting, imho.

    No, no, I just quoted the part directly relating to the etymology. The line about the prison is “quoted in Barnes, Evolution of Penology, 69.” If you put “cock-loft, which will serve” into the Google Books search box, you’ll get plenty of hits for it.

  37. No, ’tis not so deep as a well, nor so wide as a
    cock-loft; but ’tis enough,’twill serve….

  38. The EDD gives “his cock-loft is unfurnished [he wants brains]”.

  39. “Brains! Braiinn-ssss!!”

  40. Thanks for clarifying the footnote. I was wondering if either the cockle-loft spelling or the “oven” derivation came from colonial sources, but apparently not; apparently Eustace invented that part.

    Samuel Johnson’s definition, quoted by Xerîb above, was the subject of an amusing back-and-forth in The Nation in 1888: Isabel Hapgood (yes, the Russian translator, the hapless Hapgood) writes from St. Petersburg on March 22 on the question of how to pronounce Tolstoy’s first name, and complains that dictionaries are not always reliable:

    Dr. Johnson’s definition of attic as “the top story in a house,” and of garret as “the story over the attic” (or vice versa, I have not the book at hand), are famous, and fit companions to R.H. Barham’s burlesque “cellar under the bottomless pit.”

    Apparently this was a gag that was going around. An Alfred S. Roe writes from Worcester, Massachusetts on March 29 to set the record straight:

    Sir: The first time I heard Dr. Johnson’s famous definitions of “attic” and “garret” referred to, it was in a lecture given in my boyhood, in a New York village, by a professor from Hamilton College. Having access later to a first edition of the noted Dictionary, I speedily turned to the above words to see how the Johnsonese looked, but I looked in vain for “attic.” It is not in the book. Miss Isabel Hapgood’s reference, in the last Nation, to the words prompts me to state that the definition sought for may be found after “cockloft”, thus: “The room over the garret […]” Garret is defined, “A room on the highest floor in the house.” [gives the Swift and Dryden quotes]

    As used in these extracts, the words do not seem unreasonable, and a careful reading of the definitions fails to discover the ridiculous features so often ascribed to them.

    And the cheap shot is still circulating; Bill Bryson has it. I agree with Mr. Roe, it’s unfair: Johnson is thinking of a cockloft as unfinished, “room” in the sense of space, without a real floor and suitable only for storage, unlike a garret, where someone (like Johnson) can actually live. It’s not a self-contradiction.

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