January 29, 2014

Case File #014.01.29: CRIB

The noun crib has been around since the era of Old English, only back then it was spelled cribbe and was used to mean “manger” or “trough.” When the noun passed into Middle English during the twelfth century, its form changed slightly to the now familiar crib, but the word also took on the additional senses of “a stall for a stabled animal” and “a wicker basket.” Believe it or not, the contemporary and now primary sense of “a small child's bed, usually one with high barred or latticed sides” didn't appear until circa 1650, and this most likely came about due to the frequent use of crib in reference to the manger where, according to the New Testament, the infant Jesus was laid. At about that same time, the sense in which crib is used to mean “a small crude hut or dwelling place” also came into use, and it is from this that English speakers derived the informal senses of “thieves' hideout” in the early nineteenth century and “one's home or apartment” in the twentieth. And the word's association with thievery, informal though it may be, eventually led to the current but less common noun senses of “a small theft” and “plagiarism.” From its earliest days, crib has also been used as a verb, and considering the original meaning of the noun, it's not too surprising that the original verb sense was “to eat from a manger or trough.” As Middle English passed into modern English, though, the verb came to mean “to confine or restrain, as if in a crib,” and at about that point in the nineteenth century when the noun acquired its informal association with thieves, the verb acquired the related informal senses of “to steal or pilfer” and “to cheat or illicitly copy.”

©2014 Michael R. Gates

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