Final Word

Case of etymology not getting out of the crib?

Crip notes.jpg

How does a crib, associated with the humbleness and innocence of Jesus on earth become the exam cheat notes of students or a term for plagiarism?

This question haunted me ever since I completed last week’s column, speculating on the possibility that Shakespeare ‘cribbed’ the expression ‘its Greek to me’, from a Medieval Latin proverb.

My quest to discover whether there is a link between the ‘crib’ that is a rack or container for fodder (the kind that was the baby Jesus’ first bed on earth) and plagiarism or exam ‘cheat sheets’, turned out to be a most frustrating one.

An internet search immediately indicated that there are no fewer than 314 000 references to be found on the origin and meaning of the word ‘crib’. After looking at the first about a hundred, I gave up without having found a satisfactory answer.

Interesting facts

Some interesting facts did, however, emerge. It turns out that the oldest root of the term might indeed date back to ancient Hebrew and the days of Jesus’ birth.

The Bible Dictionary informs us that ‘crib’ in English “translates the Hebrew word ~'ebhuc exactly, as it denotes ‘a barred receptacle for fodder used in cowsheds and foldyards; also in fields, for beasts lying out in the winter’”.

The Hebrew word, in turn, comes from a word abhac, meaning to feed, and is used in the precise sense of the English word in Job 39:9 of the “crib” of the wild ox; in Proverbs 14:4, “Where no oxen are, the crib is clean”; and in Isaiah 1:3, “The ox knoweth his owner, and the ass his master's crib”.

In both normal English and slang, the word over time took on at least 24 meanings, from the original holder of animal fodder to a small basket stolen stuff is hidden in.

From the Etymonline website we learn that it came to English from a West Germanic root, probably related to the German Krebe for basket. The meaning ‘child’s bed with barred sides’ dates back to the 1640s, “probably from frequent use in reference to the manger where infant Jesus was laid”.

And then the Old High German version passed through French and became crèche, now the name for that modern institution that looks after young children while their parents are at work.

Etymology

For just about every one of the many meanings of ‘crib’ there is a logical explanation of why that particular application of the word has developed, like the ones for ‘child’s bed’ and petty theft given above.

The exception is ‘crib’ in the sense of ‘cheat’ or ‘plagiarise’. Although thesaurus.com website does tell us that the student slang use of the word for ‘plagiarise’ can be pinned down to 1778, it does not give the context. It only guesses that it “probably” comes from the use of ‘crib’ as a verb for steal during the previous century.  

Even the academic website Wordsense only states: “The sense of ‘stealing, taking notes, plagiarize’ seems to have developed out of the verb” (crib).

There is, however, a single source, the website Word Detective, that offers an alternative, and a very logical, explanation – and for the life of me I cannot understand why it does not get more attention. In reply to a question from one of his readers in 2002 about student ‘cheat sheets’, the Word Detective wrote: “I think you deserve at least ten extra points for your excellent guess that ‘crib’ in this sense comes from the Latin scribere, meaning ‘to write’.”

Why has nobody followed up on this, instead of taking the lazy shortcut guess of “it probably comes from …”?

by Piet Coetzer

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