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This blog is about the fascinating, fun, and challenging things about the English language. I hope to entertain you and to help you with problems or just questions you might have with spelling and usage. I go beyond just stating what is right and what is wrong, and provide some history or some tips to help you remember. Is something puzzling you? Feel free to email me at wordlady.barber@gmail.com.
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Friday, September 20, 2013

Breaded codpieces

Well, this week you were going to get an irreproachably unsalacious back-to-school discussion of the word "pupil".

But then, as I was idly grocery shopping last weekend, I did a whiplash-inducing double take on passing one of the freezers emblazoned with a sign: 
"Breaded cod pieces, $10.99". 
Who knew what lurks at No Frills on the way from the bananas to the butter!

This, of course, got me thinking about codpieces. The WORD. (Please get your mind out of the gutter). Why is a codpiece called that? What do fish have to do with it (if anything)?

The "cod" in "codpiece" was an Anglo-Saxon word for a small bag, especially the round kind closed with a drawstring used as a purse or suchlike. This was opposed to a "sack" -- borrowed from Latin probably before the Anglo-Saxons left Germany-- which was a big bag. The word "bag" itself was borrowed a little later, from the Vikings.

Not surprisingly, by the 1400s, the word "cod" was being used for what the OED defines delicately as "The integument enveloping the testicles, the scrotum". This usage survived till the late 18th century.

In the late 1400s, men's tunics, which until then had covered the lower body well below the thighs, started getting shorter so that they no longer covered the crotch. What men wore under their tunic was essentially a pair of very long socks reaching to the waist but not sewn shut across the crotch like a pair of tights. You can see the problem. The fabric codpiece was invented to fill the gap, so to speak.

Being a lexicographer of unassailable virtue, I cannot imagine why the next development happened, but men actually started making their codpieces bigger and padding them. Eventually, in Spain, the codpieces became very large and vertical (you can go check this out on Google images by yourself). By the end of the 1600s, though, this fashion was mocked, and more concealing modes of dress took over.

What does all this have to do with fish? Probably nothing. The word "cod" in the fish sense cropped up in the 1300s, and is of uncertain origin.

Another usage of "cod" you may not be familiar with is a British one, also of uncertain origin, meaning "fake". The first time I came across this was in a review of the ballet Don Quixote, and I was most perplexed to know what on earth "cod-Spanish sets, costume and music" might mean.


  1. Intriguing as always. My only disappointment is that the fish isn't involved at all.

    However ... to get your mind firmly back into the gutter, I offer the following exchange between Baldrick and Edmund Blackadder from the "Sense and Sensiblity" episode.

    "My Uncle Baldrick was in a play once."


    "Yeah. It was called _MacBeth_."

    "And what did he play?"

    "Second codpiece. MacBeth wore him in the fight scenes."

    "So he was a stunt codpiece?"


    "Was it a large part?"

    "Depends on who was playing MacBeth."

  2. I remember some years ago having a poster for the “Codpeace” organization, dedicated to saving the poor codfish from those vicious baby seals, who were decimating their population.


About Me

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Canada's Word Lady, Katherine Barber is an expert on the English language and a frequent guest on radio and television. She was Editor-in-Chief of the Canadian Oxford Dictionary. Her witty and informative talks on the stories behind our words are very popular. Contact her at wordlady.barber@gmail.com to book her for speaking engagements; she can tailor her talks to almost any subject. She is also available as an expert witness for lawsuits.