My back bankies.
Dear Word Detective: I probably should give you praise for the fine work you do sorting out all these word meanings. I am sure that your “cubbyhole” is overstuffed with them, to say the least, but here goes … thanks so much! Can you then tell me where this curious hole got its name? — Bruce Gray.
Aw shucks, ‘twernt nothing. Is “‘twernt” a word? Hmm. The Oxford English Dictionary says “’twere” (meaning “it were”) is a fine and proper word (“If it were done,..then ‘twer well, It were done quickly,” Shakespeare, in Macbeth), so I guess “‘twernt” should be too. Anyway, I do receive many emails of thanks from readers, but yours stands out because it lacks the customary offer to siphon pots of money from your national treasury into my bank account.
A “cubbyhole” is a very small, snug space or compartment, or, by extension, a very cramped room (“He spent most of his salary on a dingy cubbyhole in the East Village”). Personally, I tend to associate the term with the little cube shelves we were assigned in kindergarten, in which we stored our blankets between naps. Mine was two rows down, slightly to the left. (Spooky, eh? This from a man who can’t remember where he parked his car half the time.)
One might imagine that a “cubbyhole” takes its name from the snug burrows perhaps preferred by napping bear cubs, but one would be, unfortunately, wrong. “Cub” and “cubbyhole” are unrelated. The root of “cub” in the sense of “baby animal” (originally specifically a young fox) may come from the Old Irish word “cuib,” meaning “young dog,” but there’s no solid evidence for that theory. And, speaking of things that ought to be true but aren’t, “cubbyhole” also has no connection to “cubicle.”
The actual root of “cubbyhole” appears to be a different “cub,” the Old English dialect word “cub,” which meant a small pen for animals or a hutch of the sort housing chickens. This “cub” appeared in the mid-16th century, based on the same German roots that gave us “cove” (a small, sheltered body of water). From this “cub” we derived “cubbyhole” (originally “cubby-hole”) as well as the somewhat less frequent “cubby-house,” meaning a small playhouse or space built by children (“There was a kind of cubby-house in the hay-shed, where the hay had been cut out,” 1880).