Copp & Cobb

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I have a colleague at Penn who teaches medieval Arabic cultural history; his name is Paul Cobb.  He used to teach at the University of Chicago.

I have a friend at the University of Chicago who teaches medieval Chinese cultural history; his name is Paul Copp.  He received his PhD from nearby Princeton, which starts with a "P".

Boy, do I ever get them confused!

I mentioned this to Diana Shuheng Zhang, and she replied as follows:

The visual and phonological similarity is all the more interesting when it comes to my mind — as a Mandarin speaking person — that Mandarin Chinese doesn't contrast /p/ and /b/, in other words, the feature of [+voice] vs [-voice]. We only have the [± spread glottis], or contrast of aspiration between /p/ and /pʰ/. Therefore, a native Chinese speaker may put a vowel (most likely an unstressed /ə/) at the end

Cobb /kɑb/ → ['kʰɑpə] (in Mandarin Chinese accent) and
Copp /kɑp/ → ['kʰɑpʰə]

to emphasize / manifest the distinction of aspiration and non-aspiration.

Of course, the factor that Mandarin Chinese does not allow non-nasal consonant endings also exists in this case, but I conjecture that paragoge (vocalic epenthesis at the end of a word) in this case may be attributed more to the differences of contrastive features than that of the syllabic structures. Well, to test this, one may need to find a native Wu topolect (吳語) speaker, whose dialect has a -p, but not a -b ending!

The above thoughts are just my own conjecture, as someone who doesn't speak any other Chinese topolect than Mandarin; a Wu topolect or Cantonese speaker may falsify this thought easily and attribute it to the simple non-allowance of [-nasal] word ending in Mandarin, though. But it would still be great as long as the case is cleared up in the end, even by falsification!

When I first encountered these two surnames, I thought that they might be variants of the same name.  After digging around for a bit, I no longer think so.

"Copp" is supposedly an English topographic name for someone who lived on the top of a hill:

…from Middle English coppe, Old English copp ‘summit’ (a transferred sense of copp ‘head’, ‘bowl’, cognate with modern English cup), or a habitational name from Copp in Lancashire, named with this word. English: nickname for someone with a large or deformed head, from Middle English cop(p) ‘head’….  Respelling of German Kopp.


"Cobb", on the other hand, is apparently from an element meaning "lump", used to denote a large man.  But I'm by no means certain about that, since:

There is perhaps no monosyllable in any language that has so many distinct meanings as cob. It may be thought curious to enumerate them. As a VERB, it signifies, 1, to strike; 2, to pull the ear or hair; 3, to throw; and 4, to outdo. As a NOUN, it stands for-5, a seed-basket; 6, the material of mud walls; 7, a hay-stack of small dimensions; 8, clover seed; 9, an Hiberno-Spanish coin; 10, a lump or piece; 11, a sea-gull; 12, the fish called the miller's thumb; 13, a harbour, as the Cobb of Lyme-Regis; 14, a young herring; 15, a leader or chief; 16, a wealthy or influential person; 17, a small horse; 18, a spider (whence cob-web); 19, the bird called a shoveller.


See also here

Naturally, I'm also curious how both "Copp" and "Cobb" developed geminate final bilabials, but I'll leave it to others to enlighten us on this point.  Meanwhile, it's my task to keep Professor Paul Cobb and Professor Paul Copp straight in my mind, especially when I'm thinking or talking in Mandarin.


  1. Paul said,

    March 11, 2019 @ 7:24 am

    If you were an Arab, chances are you would pronounce Cobb and Copp the same. There is no “p” in Arabic. I was in Jerusalem and was called “Bol” by Arab friends. Met one friend in the “bub” and as he did not drink alcohol we ordered “Bebsi”.

    Was reminded of this article…

  2. Coby Lubliner said,

    March 11, 2019 @ 8:16 am

    In fact, the Arabic form of the name Paul is Boulos, from the Greek Paulos.

  3. Victor Mair said,

    March 11, 2019 @ 8:59 am

    So, in Arabic, Paul Cobb and Paul Copp would both be "Bol / Boulos Cob"?

  4. KeithB said,

    March 11, 2019 @ 9:37 am

    Speaking as a Tolkien fan, shouldn't there be a "spider" in there somewhere?

  5. KeithB said,

    March 11, 2019 @ 9:38 am

    Oops, I see it at #18.

  6. Chris Button said,

    March 11, 2019 @ 9:56 am

    The doubled "pp" and "bb" mark the preceding vowel as short (although in American English that vowel has now lengthened to /ɑː/ instead of BrE /ɒ/). However, unlike "s", "l", "f", "k", "ch", "g(e)", which are spelled as "ss", "ll", "ff", "ck", "tch", "dg(e)" at the end of monosyllabic words to note this distinction, the doubled spelling is not done for other letters hence we have "cop" (not usually "copp") but "copping" where the "p" is doubled (compare the single "p" in "coping"). Since "Copp" and "Cobb" are names, they are simply being distinguished as such in that manner and have retained the variant spelling.

    As for the pronunciation of "Copp" and "Cobb" the final coda will generally be voiceless as /p/ with the difference being made around a fortis/lenis distinction that affects the vowel quality whereby the former will surface as [kɑˑp] due to fortis clipping while the latter will be [kɑːp] due to the lenis coda (incidentally the "bb" can still be voiced but people don't usually speak like that).

  7. cameron said,

    March 11, 2019 @ 10:00 am

    @KeithB – and note that Tolkien varies "cob" in the sense of spider to "cop", as in "attercop".

  8. Antonio L. Banderas said,

    March 11, 2019 @ 10:14 am

    @Chris Button

    In General American English (GenAm), vowel length is not as distinctive as in RP

  9. Chris Button said,

    March 11, 2019 @ 10:43 am

    @ Antonio L. Banderas

    I'll admit there is natural variation (e.g. consider the long [æː] that may occur) and fortis clipping only exacerbates such distinctions. However, what you are referencing above is just a myth unfortunately perpetuated by (American) linguists not bothering to note length since the vowel quality will suffice for all distinctions ( e.g. /ɪ/ versus /i/ which in reality is short [ɪ] versus long [iː]). Check out something like Labov, Ash & Boberg's "The Atlas of North American English".

  10. David said,

    March 11, 2019 @ 10:56 am

    There's also a "cob" adjective:

    "In appearance he is a small, thickset, cobby, black, tailless dog, with a fox-like face."

  11. Allen Riddell said,

    March 11, 2019 @ 11:53 am

    On the confusion/equivalence of p's and b's:

    "The "dance of the p's and b's": truth or noise?"

  12. Peter Grubtal said,

    March 11, 2019 @ 12:14 pm

    Yes, the b/p variation, to voice or not to voice, in word (or syllable?) ending position happens in other languages (or between other languages).
    The Austrian Habsburgs are effectively Hapsburgs in English. In Germany, the dönerkebab stalls often have "kebap" in their shop signs.

    In English, the p is aspirated: I wonder whether this helps distinguish p and b, or has the effect that p doesn't get voiced in final position.

  13. Victor Mair said,

    March 11, 2019 @ 12:17 pm

    From Paul Cobb:

    Yes, and we follow each other on Twitter! Not to mention the Near Eastern archaeologist Peter Cobb, who works in Penn Museum. I get many disappointed students when they learn their class is not being taught by him!

  14. Cuconnacht said,

    March 11, 2019 @ 1:35 pm

    Peter Grubtal: "Kebap" is standard Turkish. Final b's are unvoiced in Turkish, and unlike the case of German, the spelling reflects the change. If there is a vowel following the final consonant, as in şiş kebabı, the b remains.

  15. Chris Button said,

    March 11, 2019 @ 2:03 pm

    And there I was thinking this post was going to be all about this:

    Victor H. Mair, "​Phonosymbolism or Etymology: The Case of the Verb 'Cop'”, Sino-Platonic Papers, 91 (January, 1999).

  16. Victor Mair said,

    March 11, 2019 @ 2:38 pm

    @Chris Button

    Yes, I remember that one ("Verb 'Cop'") well. It was fun to write and fun to think about.

  17. Victor Mair said,

    March 11, 2019 @ 2:42 pm

    On the supposed "geminate final bilabials", Mark Liberman informs me:


    Neither of them has (or ever has had) a geminate consonant — this is purely an orthographic feature.


  18. Chris Button said,

    March 11, 2019 @ 2:59 pm

    Neither of them has (or ever has had) a geminate consonant — this is purely an orthographic feature.

    That's what I said above. Ok, maybe not that explicitly…

  19. rosie said,

    March 11, 2019 @ 4:07 pm

    @Chris Button Why "dg(e)"? Isn't the "e" mandatory at the end of a monosyllable — or indeed at the end of a word of no matter how many syllables? AFAIK that "e" may disappear only if another morpheme follows in the same word, e.g. Wedgwood, Edgware.

  20. Chris Button said,

    March 11, 2019 @ 4:25 pm

    @ Rosie

    Yes – I was just putting it in parentheses to show that it wasn't related to the doubling but rather that "dg" patterns like "tch". A nice example of a similar use of "e" is after "v" in "live" which is why it has two pronunciations as in "to live" or "alive".

  21. maidhc said,

    March 11, 2019 @ 5:19 pm

    According to The Annotated Hobbit, "attercop" is from ME "atter-cop(pe)", itself from OE "at(t)or-coppa", spider–it means literally 'poison head'.

    In the same scene, Bilbo also uses Lob and Cob as words for spider. The annotation mentions that "cob" is probably a back-formation from "cobweb". But according to AHD, ME "coppeweb" comes from "attorcoppa" again.

    TAH also mentions that in The Princess and the Goblin, George Macdonald used "cob" as a word for goblin.

  22. Coby Lubliner said,

    March 11, 2019 @ 5:33 pm

    The "e" after "v" may go back to the time when non-initial "v" was written as "u" and, if word-final and following a vowel, would be read as part of a diphthong (as in "thou" or "lieu"), but an added "e" (even if silent) would make it intervocalic and hence take the "v" sound (as in "haue" or "loue").

  23. AG said,

    March 11, 2019 @ 6:34 pm

    Cos Cob, Connecticut is supposedly either named after a harbor built by someone named John Coe, or native words for "high rock", neither of which seem to have a lot of online evidence for or against them.

  24. Victor Mair said,

    March 11, 2019 @ 7:20 pm

    I often wondered about that odd name Cos Cob, and just sort of guessed that the second part came from "cove".

  25. AG said,

    March 11, 2019 @ 8:11 pm

    this very interesting book discusses the mysteries of both coppe and cobbe at length, not to mention their very close relatives loppe and lobbe (?).

    To further add confusion, it claims at one point that cobweb used to be cop-web …?

  26. amy said,

    March 11, 2019 @ 8:38 pm

    Paul in Arabic was the topic of this amusing past post:

  27. Kate Bunting said,

    March 12, 2019 @ 4:52 am

    Here in Derbyshire, England, a cob is a bread roll.

  28. Philip Taylor said,

    March 12, 2019 @ 5:44 am

    … and a soft one (as opposed to a crusty one) if I remember correctly …

  29. David Morris said,

    March 12, 2019 @ 7:25 am

    In one lesson, my class was practising "I want to V" and similar constructions. One student wrote "I want to eat a large crap".

  30. DWalker07 said,

    March 12, 2019 @ 2:22 pm

    As a NOUN, it [cob] stands for-5, a seed-basket; 6, the material of mud walls; 7, a hay-stack of small dimensions; 8, clover seed; 9, an Hiberno-Spanish coin; 10, a lump or piece; 11, a sea-gull; 12, the fish called the miller's thumb; 13, a harbour, as the Cobb of Lyme-Regis; 14, a young herring; 15, a leader or chief; 16, a wealthy or influential person; 17, a small horse; 18, a spider (whence cob-web); 19, the bird called a shoveller.

    What about the inside of a "cob of corn"? I'm not sure that's covered by a "seed-basket" or any of the other listed noun meanings.

  31. Philip Taylor said,

    March 12, 2019 @ 3:03 pm

    Adjectivally, cob is now also a type of LED light bulb, almost certainly from the "corn cob" sense to which DWalker07 refers.

  32. Andrew Usher said,

    March 12, 2019 @ 9:53 pm

    Both 'Copp' and 'Cobb', if they really are different, apparently did have OE geminates. Their loss in final position is not surprising even if English had kept them everywhere else (which it didn't). Of course, their retention or re-introduction in the surnames is just decorative as is common with names.

    It's no myth that American English really has lost vowel length, and suffered concomitant mergers, but without sound clips that argument will probably also get nowhere.

    Coby Lubliner:
    Absolutely correct. That's why English doesn't have words ending in 'v'; nor does it double 'v' ('uu' would have been read as 'w'); nor does it allow 'uv', instead writing 'ov'. Recent slang and borrowing may ignore these, however.

    Peter Grubtal:
    No, the Habsburgs were/are 'Hapsburgs' in German, and given the common English spelling 'Hapsburg' that's a more plausible source. I would not expect devoicing in that position in English and as stated in this thread cobweb (*copweb) shows the opposite direction of voicing assimilation.
    The plural/genitive 's' remained fortis in German, not in English – hence the difference – I'd have no trouble saying 'Habsburg' with /bzb/ and no doubt have.

    k_over_hbarc at yahoo dot com

  33. Chas Belov said,

    March 12, 2019 @ 11:42 pm

    Wait, what about "run," which has hundreds of definitions?

  34. Chas Belov said,

    March 12, 2019 @ 11:43 pm

    Oops, sorry, I mean:

    Wait, what about "run," which has over a hundred definitions?

  35. Peter Grubtal said,

    March 13, 2019 @ 3:55 am

    Andrew Usher
    "No, the Habsburgs were/are 'Hapsburgs' in German"
    Bit surprised at your assertion:

    1st line of Englsih wiki says:
    The House of Habsburg (/ˈhæpsbɜːrɡ/; German: [ˈhaːpsbʊɐ̯k]; traditionally spelled Hapsburg in English)
    i.e. that the b is devoiced in both German and Englsh.

  36. Anthea Fleming said,

    March 14, 2019 @ 3:57 am

    Another meaning for 'cob', common in Anglo horsey circles. is a solidly-built round-shaped horse or pony, used for riding and driving,

  37. Pete said,

    March 14, 2019 @ 11:56 am

    Being from Northern Ireland, I pronounce Cobb and Copp with different vowels: [kʰɔːb] vs [kʰɑpʰ]. So they don't sound that similar to me.

  38. Andrew Usher said,

    March 14, 2019 @ 8:35 pm

    Peter Grubtal:
    I know the right way to say 'Habsburg'. The point is, the existence of the spelling 'Hapsburg' indicates the lack of any devoicing process in English; 'Habsburg', if it were a well-formed English word with the same morphology, would not be devoiced. It was to support that that I mentioned the fully voiced /bzb/ pronunciation as being eminently possible in English and in fact the natural way to read out the spelling 'Habsburg'.

  39. Victor Mair said,

    March 15, 2019 @ 6:13 am

    From Thomas L. Mair:

    If you have a certain kind of dyslexia you might flip the final two descenders into ascenders (or vice versa) and never know the difference.

  40. Victor Mair said,

    March 15, 2019 @ 6:36 am

    And then there's Codd, a British entrepreneur who invented an ingenious bottle for sodas in 1872, and Cott, a Polish immigrant who produced sodas from a company he founded in 1923 in Port Chester, New York.

  41. Philip Taylor said,

    March 17, 2019 @ 5:57 pm

    I was hoping to find that a Mr Cott had invented the eponymous cotter pin but was disappointed. Even more so when I found how little the OED had to tell me about the etymology of this word —

    cotter, n.1 Etymology: See cotterel n.
    cotterel, n. Etymology: Closely related to cotter n.1, which may be a shortened form, or the primitive of which this is a diminutive. So far as evidence has been found, cotterel is the earlier. The connection of sense between 1 and 2 is not clear; they belong also to different localities.

  42. AG said,

    March 17, 2019 @ 10:18 pm

    Speaking of soda bottles, apparently people in the Philippines refer to all metal bottle caps as "tansan" after a venerable brand of Japanese soda water….?

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