I always liked counterpane, an old word for a bedspread, but I never knew its etymology, which is quite unexpected: it’s an alteration of earlier counterpoint (due to an association with obsolete pane ‘cloth’), but that counterpoint is an entirely different word from the one you’re thinking of—it’s from Old French contrepointe, which is an alteration of coultepointe, from Medieval Latin culcit(r)a puncta ‘pricked (i.e., quilted) mattress.’ That word culcit(r)a is the etymon of quilt, so counterpane should really be quiltpoint…. and the OED tells me that in fact that form did exist (“1386 Will in T. Madox Formul. Anglic. 428 Item lego … 1. lectum rubeum quiltpoint cum i. testro de eâdem settâ.”).

Entirely unrelated, to either quilts or the basic mission of LH, but too good not to share: the Telegraph‘s obituary for the Dowager Duchess of St Albans. The Brits do obits better than anyone. One tidbit: “The writer Graham Greene, in search of material for a film, reduced the future duchess to giggles with his anecdotes, but it was left to Beauclerk to introduce him to the Sewer Police, thereby handing him the seeds of a plot for The Third Man.” Thanks, Nick!


  1. The Land Of Counterpane
    When I was sick and lay a-bed,
    I had two pillows at my head,
    And all my toys beside me lay
    To keep me happy all the day.
    And sometimes for an hour or so
    I watched my leaden soldiers go,
    With different uniforms and drills,
    Among the bed-clothes, through the hills;
    And sometimes sent my ships in fleets
    All up and down among the sheets;
    Or brought my trees and houses out,
    And planted cities all about.
    I was the giant great and still
    That sits upon the pillow-hill,
    And sees before him, dale and plain,
    The pleasant land of counterpane.
         –R.L.S., A Child’s Garden of Verses

  2. but it was left to [Suzanne] Beauclerk to introduce him to the Sewer Police…
    I was surprised at your interpolated [Suzanne], because I took the Beauclerk in question to be the Colonel. Although it is, I think, standard practice in US journalism to refer to people only by their last name after the first mention I don’t think the Telegraph follows this, especially in relation to women.

  3. Yes, of course you’re right—sloppy on my part, and I’ve fixed it now. Thanks!

  4. marie-lucie says

    I read the obit (what a wonderful person she was) and I had the same reaction as Athel. It must have been the Colonel who knew the Sewer Police, because the obit writer would not have referred to the lady in question with just the last name, especially after calling her “the future duchess”, a phrase which contrasts (after but) with “Beauclerk” which in the context has to refer to a man. Graham Greene knew both the lady and her husband, and had a different relationship with each of them: on the one hand, he amused “the future duchess”, but on the other hand it was “Beauclerk” (who cannot be the same person) who introduced him to the Sewer Police. If the introducer had been the lady, the sentence would have been something like: “he amused the future duchess, and she in turn inroduced him to the Sewer Police …”, with no mention of “Beauclerk” in that context.

  5. The first Duke of St Albans was the illegitimate son of Charles II and Nell Gwynn. So how did he get the name Charles Beauclerk?

  6. He was handsome and literate?

  7. That’s how I read it the first time too, with her introducing Greene to the Sewer Police, but throughout she is referred to as “Sue St. Albans”, and never with the name Beauclerk. Perhaps not all British women use their husbands’ names (not all American women do). But the last sentence! “Suzanne St Albans, who died on February 12, is survived by her stepson, the present duke, and by her three sons and a daughter….” How many people is that? (Her husband is referred to as “the future duke”). I had to reread it several times. Thank heaven we Americans don’t have royals, we’d never get it all straight.

  8. The Third Man (wiki): “Before the production came to Vienna, Karas was an unknown wine bar performer. According to a November 1949 Time magazine article: ‘The picture demanded music appropriate to post-World War II Vienna, but director Reed had made up his mind to avoid schmalzy, heavily orchestrated waltzes. In Vienna one night Reed listened to a wine-garden zitherist named Anton Karas, [and] was fascinated by the jangling melancholy of his music.'”
    The Third Man Theme, played by Karas on zither.
    Karas plays zither in a Viennese cafe.

  9. Beauclerk is the family name of the Duke & Duchess of St. Albans (nowadays a northern suburb of London). On acceding to the title they acquired an additional name, they didn’t trade-in the old one. At the same time as she became the duchess, in a buy-one-get-one-free deal she also became the Countess of Bruford.

  10. AJP Pedant says

    St Albans is not a suburb of London, any more than Windsor or Watford are. It’s a city in its own right.

  11. The obit omitted to mention that Beauclerk is pronounced Arbuthnot.

  12. All surnames should be pronounced Arbuthnot.

  13. I’m never sure how to pronounce Arbuthnot.

  14. Watch it, Taylor at so-called “Cheap serve”.

  15. marie-lucie says

    I’m never sure how to pronounce Arbuthnot.
    Me neither. I have never had the opportunity to hear it said, although I have seen it many times written.

  16. There is, of course, an where people of that name gather. And, of course, it has a FAQ. And, of course, that deals with the pronunciation.
    Well, except that it doesn’t tell you how to pronounce the u, which is the part I’m personally unsure about. I think I tend to make it long. Which means I pronounce it mostly like this voice over, except rhotically (and she’s posher and so puts a prominent /j/ before her long u‘s).

  17. People can, of course, pronounce it however they like, but the traditional pronunciation is with short u (i.e., u as in but): /ar’bʌþnət/.

  18. The Brits do obits better than anyone.
    And epitaphs.

  19. John Emerson says

    The picture demanded music appropriate to post-World War II Vienna, but director Reed had made up his mind to avoid schmalzy, heavily orchestrated waltzes.
    Trivia: The logician Kurt Goedel, a Czech German who spent over a decade in Vienna, preferred American pop music to Viennese (much less Viennese classical).

  20. Thanks, this is wonderful. But I think it’s particularly the Telegraph that does this kind of obit. I have read quite a few of theirs on various soldiers – I particularly remember some ‘Tennis Court War’ in India.

  21. Bill Walderman says

    “The logician Kurt Goedel, a Czech German who spent over a decade in Vienna, preferred American pop music to Viennese (much less Viennese classical).”
    Didn’t he starve himself to death, too?

  22. John Emerson says

    He had some sort of mental illness, as many logicians did. When he was OK he seems to have been rather middlebrow except on mathematics type questions.

  23. Conjecture: a lassie who can’t pronounce Falkirk is likely to be an unreliable guide to Arbuthnot.

  24. David Marjanović says

    Didn’t he starve himself to death, too?

    Yes, out of fear of being poisoned.

  25. Arbuthnot is pronounced like “Aunt”.

  26. Pronounced like aunt–is that ant-aunt or awnt-aunt?

  27. Now you’ve put that song in my head, Duke.

  28. John Emerson says

    They got Mozart, but they weren’t going to get Kurt. No way.

  29. Properly speaking, since the dukedom predates the charter of 1877 when the town of St Alban’s became the City of St Albans, losing its apostrophe through what one historian of the city told me was an unfortunate clerical error on the part of the man who drew up the charter, it ought to be the Duke of St Alban’s. Real pedants, of course, call the place Werlamchester. (Locals call it Snorbuns.)

  30. And I suppose Werlamchester is pronounced “zbt”. The Duke of St Alban’s what?
    I made that up about Arbuthnot, but if I hadn’t it wouldn’t be pronounced “ant”, because in that case I would have written “ant” and not “aunt” (which in my dialect is, as I said, pronounced “Arbuthnot”).

  31. And I suppose Worcestershire is pronounced “uncle”.

  32. Jeannie Dunn says

    You people are all deliciously mad. Who knew that attempting to fold what appears to be a hacked-off sheet, and wondering if it could be a counterpane as mentioned by RLS, could lead to the flabbergasting discovery that Arthbunot is pronounced “aunt”. (I may then presume that flabbergast is prounced “Wooster”?.

  33. It is indeed, and thank you for joining the merry crew of madpeople!

  34. Rede Batcheller says

    Fast forward a few years — surely all of you have caught up with the once-little-known-fact that all these names are, in fact, pronounced Timmy.

  35. Lars Mathiesen says

    Is that with a happy y?

  36. David Eddyshaw says

    Nonsense! All British names are pronounced Chumley, except for “Smith”, which is pronounced Fanshaw.

  37. John Emerson says

    I was going to say. Eddyshaw has made the obvious point.

  38. Everything is with a happy Y.
    My friends call me Yy.

  39. Good show, Hithersay-Cholmondeley, good show!

  40. David Eddyshaw says

    Thank you, old bean!

  41. When was the last time anyone in the whole world called each other “Old Man” or “Old Boy” (except for ham radio Morse code OM/OB)?

  42. I tried to make “old bean” as a affectionate term of address a thing among my friends in middle school, but I couldn’t make it happen.

  43. Lars Mathiesen says

    There are contexts where I will call my specific ones of my friends gamle dreng, but it’s not really unironic. (They have to have been saying something silly, probably).

  44. I’m putting this here because of the relationship to the financial records meaning of counterpane:

    I just learned that “per contra” is also a term in financial bookkeeping. And it doesn’t just mean, “cash payment airdropped into the jungle.”

  45. Huh:

    Among his other counsel, Pacioli advised merchants to keep an accurate ledger with debits entered on the left side and credits on the right. The word per contra calls to mind this time-honored practice of balancing items on one side of a ledger against those on the other. The term comes from Italian, and it translates literally as “by the opposite side (of the ledger).”

    Thanks, I had no idea! (Also thanks for reviving this educational and merry thread; I had, of course, forgotten the etymology of counterpane.)

  46. Just to clarify, while Luca Pacioli standardized double-entry bookkeeping—improving and popularizing a method that may previously have been considered a trade secret by the banks who used it—I don’t think he personally originated the term per contra for describing the relationship between the entries in the two sides of the ledger (although I could be mistaken).

  47. John Cowan says

    The Duke of St Alban’s what?

    Church, probably.

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