Spider Webs and Cobwebs


“Mommy, did you know that cobweb is another word for spider web?”

“Yes, I did.”

“Why do they call them cob webs?”

“Wow, I don’t know the answer to that question. I’ll have to see if I can find out.”

“Mommy.”

“Hmm?”

“Why do we have so many cobwebs around our house? I really don’t like spiders.”

As I have written on more than one occasion, you never know what you will learn from your children. They ask amazing questions, and on this particular day it was about the origin of the term “cobweb”. I didn’t know what the origin was. The only other reference to “cob” with which I was familiar was “cob” as in corn-on-the-cob, with the cob being the cylindrical rod in the center on which all of the kernels of corn are arranged. I wondered if the origin of the term had to do with spiders spinning webs in corn cribs or barns or something like that. At least one spider, named Charlotte gained some notoriety for the webs she spun in a barn.
So I started investigating. The origin most sources give (most sources being online dictionaries) is that cobweb derives from a Middle English word “coppe”. Some linguists propose that the word gradually became slurred to be pronounced “cob”. Given what is happening with modern day English usage in this rapidly transforming world of Twitter and texting, slurring “coppe” to “cob” doesn’t sound like that far a stretch. Reading a little more, I discovered that “coppe” may itself have derived from the Old English “attor” (spider) and “coppe” head, literally “poison head”. That “coppe” originally meant head is interesting in light of the fact that we often describe a state of confusion as “having cobwebs on the brain.” (So if “cob” derives from an Old English term meaning “head”, I have to wonder why we call it an “ear” of corn, but I digress.)

Did you know though, that there is actually a distinction between a “cobweb” and a “spider web”? (At least in some people’s minds.) The word cobweb is used often to refer to a single thread spun by a spider, while the term spider web refers to the ornate webs woven by corn spiders and such. Furthermore, a cobweb, that single strand, is typically dusty. Cobwebs are often described as abandoned. So, as I sit here typing this article, I am proud to report that I can see both cobwebs and spider webs, which is good. When I try to explain to my daughter the difference between a cobweb and a spider web, it will be much easier if I have real-life examples to point out.

I actually have no problem with a few friendly spiders in the house, they eat other insects that you don’t want around, which is good—pest control with no chemicals. The ones that spin webs are usually quite beneficial. And, as long as they stay out of my way when I am in the shower, we can peacefully coexist.

As for her second question, about why we have so many cobwebs and spider webs in our house, that answer is simple. I haven’t taught her how to dust yet. But, she’s showing interest, so maybe now’s the time.

©2012 Michele Arduengo. All rights reserved.

3 thoughts on “Spider Webs and Cobwebs

  1. Yes siree–now is indeed the time to hand your little one a dust cloth! When I was a young girl I dusted my grandparent’s place every Sat–I think they paid me a nickel or a quarter to do it (can’t remember which), and it was actually kind of fun.
    Now I must go and look around my place; I’m sure I’ll find a mixture of cobwebs and spider webs in at least some of the rooms…maybe I’ll offer your little girl a quarter to dust for me!

  2. I was bitten by a brown recluse spider when I was a newlywed and developed blood poisoning, so I fear spiders. That is not to say you won’t find a cobweb in my home. Enjoy the curiosity of children and your in depth research to find an answer.

    1. Brown recluses are nasty things and their bites are VERY serious, but I don’t think they build webs. Sorry to hear you suffered through one of those bites. I would fear (and do) those kinds of spiders–they are one very good reason to go through laundry piles regularly. Growing up in the southern U.S. we had many more nasty, poisonous things than we do up here, including spiders, although the territory of the brown recluse does extend this far. Fortunately most of the ones that have taken up residence in my house are friendly, ecologically positive species.

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