J. R. R. Tolkien was a great lover of words. It showed both — in his extensive vocabulary and talent to choose words with great precision to make his texts come alive with various shades of lexical meanings. One of the most special traits of Tolkien’s writing was a mastery usage of archaic style. A particularly interesting example of obsolete vocabulary can be found in The Hobbit.

The overall style of The Hobbit is strikingly unlike those of The Lord of the Rings and, especially, of The Silmarillion. Archaic vocabulary and phrase turns do occur in Bilbo’s story, but on the whole The Hobbit is written in a light, playful tone that differs greatly from the poetic prose of The Lord of the Rings and solemn grandeur of The Silmarillion. Certain words deserve special attention, though.

When in Mirkwood Bilbo, unseen thanks to the power of his Ring, has to use his imagination and courage to rescue the Dwarves from the spiders’ cocoons, he creates a song right on the spot:

Old fat spider spinning in a tree!

Old fat spider can’t see me!

Attercop! Attercop!

Won’t you stop,

Stop your spinning and look for me?

(Hobbit, p. 185)

This whimsical song is meant to infuriate the spiders and drive them away from the captured Dwarves, but what on Earth is attercop? It is a very interesting lexical choice given by Tolkien to Bilbo as attercop can be interpreted in two ways.

The first meaning of the word attercop, which dates back as far as approximately 1000 AD, is ‘spider’. In its present-day form it comes from the Old English word attorcoppe — ‘spider’ (with variants of spelling including atorcoppe and attercoppe). Attorcoppe consists of two elements. The first of them is attor (or ator), and it means ‘poison’, while the second — copp — might mean ‘head’, ‘top’, ‘summit’, ‘cup’ or probably simply ‘spider’. Put together, the word can be literally interpreted as ‘poison-head’. The name dates back to the belief that spiders were very poisonous. This belief, in fact, proves true with the Dwarves. As Bilbo frees them from the tightly woven nets, we see that Fili “was feeling very sick and ill from spider-poison” and some Dwarves were not really well-off as they “had been more poisoned” than others.

The second meaning of attercop is far less flattering. While the first simply defines the species and where in the world of fauna they belong, though in a rather special way, the second is a downright offence. Circa 1500 AD another meaning of attercop developed, and it came to mean ‘ill-natured, spiteful, peevish person’. Both of the word meanings did infuriate the arachnids of Mirkwood as “no spider has ever liked being called Attercop”. Neither meaning comes across as exactly flattering: the latter one is downright insulting, while ‘poison-head’ does not come across as a particularly polite way to address a spider, either.  Sitting next to Tomnoddy (a fool, simpleton), these words make a very offensive partnership.

The word attercop is now obsolete: it can now be seen in the term Attercopus fimbriunguis denoting an extinct kind of arachnids or it can be heard in some regions around Britain, namely in Scottish, Northumberland and Yorkshire dialects to name but a few. In her book Rustic Speech and Folk-Lore Elizabeth Mary Wright, who was the wife of Tolkien’s Oxford tutor, the linguist Joe Wright,  regrets the diminishing of the word attercop and states:

Many a delightful old word which ran away from a public career a century or two ago, and left no address, may thus be discovered in its country retreat, hale and hearty yet, though hoary with age.

(Rustic Speech and Folk-Lore, p. 85)

So, it is an obsolete dialect word one can expect to hear from Bilbo, and by using it, the Hobbit masterfully conveys several layers of meaning in just one lexical unit.

Another two interesting words occurring in the same song are lob and cob:

Lazy Lob and crazy Cob

are weaving webs to wind me.

I am far more sweet than other meat,

but still they cannot find me!

(Hobbit, p. 186)

Both are archaic words for ‘spider’. Lob existed in the form lobbe in Old English (with loppe also possible, but questioned). The same word appears in the name of the giant spider Shelob, which is interpreted as ‘female spider’ (she + lob). Cob comes from the Old English word copp, which was discussed above. In Modern English in the meaning of ‘spider’ it can only be found in the word cobweb, but is never used on its own. Both these words are harmless by themselves, but paired with perfectly alliterated with them lazy and crazy, they can indeed cause offence.

Bilbo’s song, made up “on the spur of a very awkward moment”, mocks the Mirkwood spiders, but also shows how many words existed for arachnids in the past or still remain in dialects. This encounter with the spiders becomes one of the most pivotal moments for Bilbo in his personal transformation, while his song demonstrates that the Hobbit “was not quite so prosy as he liked to believe”.

Works consulted:

  1. J. R. R. Tolkien – The Hobbit; HarperCollinsPublishers; London; 2012.
  2. Bosworth-Toller Anglo-Saxon Dictionary
  3. Elizabeth Mary Wright – Rustic Speech and Folk-Lore; Oxford University Press; 1913 (digital edition).

Featured image: Théodore Rousseau – Edge of the Forest at Fontainebleau, Setting Sun

24 thoughts on “How to insult a spider.

  1. Olga, what a fascinating short essay! I have not read The Hobbit for some time (since my children were quite small) and always simply assumed that when Tolkien made his comment about Attercop being a terrible insult for a spider he simply had some knowledge of Mirkwood arachnids that his readers do not share. Now I really know!
    I was once friends with a German with the family name of Kopf. When I shared the name with other Germans they began to giggle. Kop, Cop, Kopf, obviously sounds funny to a German ear in a way that it doesn’t to a modern native English speaker like me.

    1. Thank you, Stephen!
      I loved researching this word – did so a couple of years ago and was fascinated to discover what it means and why it was so offensive for the spiders. Tolkien could use words so masterfully!
      So many words sound different in different languages. A lot of German words sound really funny for a Russian ear as they are almost identical in pronunciation with obscene words or phrases. They wouldn’t sound even remotely funny for speakers of other languages.

      1. I guess that I am intrigued that even among Germans that Kop/Kopf sound when used in a name was a cause of amusement. As German is our closest neighbour linguistically to Old English I wondered if I had come across a descendant of Tolkien’s joke? Without knowing it, of course.

      2. That’s definitely a matter for research. Kopf is a German word for ‘head’ and I’m sure it’s related to the Old English ‘copp’. There can be some other hidden meanings that native speakers are aware of, but which learners might not know or simply don’t associate the word in question with.

  2. I like having attercops around the house. Madame hates them, but whenever I hold the door open for the cat, random insects always come in too. Spiders are an additional, environmentally sensitive, line of defense. She hates flies and mosquitoes worse, so I’m constantly arguing for letting spiders hang out on the windowsills.
    I wonder if the Elven-King ever had to have the same conversation with his wife, except about Dwarves.

  3. “The Ring of Words” (p. 91-2) notes that :

    Tolkien had encountered the word [attercop] when still an undergraduate, while he was making notes on the 13th-century poem ‘The Owl and the Nightingale’.

  4. Nicely done, Olga. Coppe is certainly also related to Latin “caput”, which means head. It’s fascinating that coppe doesn’t appear except in compounds. (The normal OE word for head is heafod).

    Cob actually does survive in another modern English word, at least in the US: corn-cob, or, as we call it when we’re eating it, corn-on-the-cob. The corn here is of course maize.

    I am fascinated to learn of Elizabeth Mary Wright’s book, and will have to track it down.

    1. Thank you, Tom!
      That’s a very unusual word indeed! In the meaning of ‘spider’ it’s very dependant. Interestingly, I’ve looked at other meanings of ‘cob’ and it is used separately, but it comes from a different source. The OED marks it as ‘unknown origin’. The non-spider meanings of ‘cob’ don’t seem to be related to copp/coppe.
      The book can be found on Gutenberg, if you don’t mind electronic versions. It seems a great book, though I still have to read it in full.

    2. Interestingly, ‘heafod’ is also related to ‘caput’. The consonant shift from Greek/Latin c/k > h and p > f is regular in Germanic languages according to Grimm’s Law, and should have happened in Proto-Germanic long before any of this was recorded (and in fact it must have, because German also has ‘Haupt’ as a cognate and synonym). And yet we’ve also got this form in multiple Germanic languages that preserves the initial c/k: ‘Kopf’, ‘coppe’, etc. I wonder if the word was borrowed back into the Germanic languages from Latin with an expanded meaning of ‘head’, ‘top’, ‘summit’, ‘cup’? Maybe from Latin ‘cuppa’?

      If I had a TARDIS, I wouldn’t have time to use it to save the universe. I’d be too busy using it to validate etymological inquiries.

      1. That’s a really interesting piece of information, Shawn! Thank you for sharing it.
        I won’t be surprised at all the mutual borrowings from one language to another. Words seem to have a way of travelling between languages.
        That’s spot on about Tardis! I’d spend ages going from one place to another and collect all the language data I possibly can.

  5. I love this word! Soon after we discussed this chapter of The Hobbit on the Prancing Pony Podcast, I heard from listeners in a few European countries about cognates of ‘attercop’ that still are alive and well in languages other than English. Apparently this is still the common word for a spider in much of Scandinavia, from Norwegian ‘edderkopp’ to Faroese ‘eiturkoppur’. But my favorite thing that I learned was that although modern Dutch now uses an unrelated word for the spider, they still use ‘etterkop’ as a childish insult for someone who’s being annoying, and it translates to ‘pus-head’. I didn’t realize it had a similar meaning in Middle English. Thank you, Olga!

    1. This word is incredible, isn’t it? Its story is spectacular. It’s great to see its cognates still present in other languages. The roads words take are so different and unlike each other!
      Thank you for reading, Shawn!

      1. We have some lively children staying with us at the moment who are afraid of spiders. The older girl knows The Hobbit and when I suggested that she shouts attercop to scare the spiders away asked what the word meant. It was a pleasure to return to your essay in order to refresh my memory and to read the lively correspondence that followed it. And now some bright young children have more fascination with language too.

      2. Stephen, thank you so much for sharing this story with me! It’s great to know that children become interested in such language matters! Maybe, you have budding philologists there 🙂

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