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Pronounced /ˈkʌlpən/Help with pronunciation

Those of us faced with cutting a joint to serve at the table would no doubt refer to it as carving, no matter what variety of animal was concerned.

It was very different in Tudor times, if we are to believe a book of 1508 by Wynkyn de Worde, once an apprentice to William Caxton, England’s first printer. Its title was The Boke of Keruying. It started “Here begynneth the boke of keruynge and sewynge and all the feestes in the yere”, which in modern English would be “Here begins the book of carving and serving and all the feasts in the year”. Under the heading of “Terms of a Keruer” appeared a long list of the terms for carving any type of flesh, fowl or fish.

The attentive reader (who was intended to be the master of a big household, not a presumably illiterate servant) was instructed that one should break a deer, disfigure a peacock, dismember a heron, lift a swan, unjoint a bittern, unbrace a mallard, thigh a pigeon, splat a pike, scull a tench and culpon a trout. But never, never carve.

If all this reminds you a little of the long lists of collective terms for birds (murmuration of starlings, unkindness of ravens, tiding of magpies, exaltation of larks) which were first listed in The Book of St Albans of 1486, you may guess that a lot of these carving terms were intended more for the pleasure of readers with time to savour the delights of the English language than for their servants to use at table. The list was repeated in later centuries in many works, such as Hannah Woolley’s The Compleat Maidservant or Young Maiden’s Tutor of 1685 and Edw Smedley’s Encyclopaedia Metropolitana of 1845.

Culpon, meaning a piece cut off, a portion or slice, is first recorded in Chaucer’s Prologue to the Canterbury Tales in about 1386. It’s from Old French colpon, via Latin colpus from Greek kolaphos, a blow with the fist. In the early nineteenth century — by then culpon was obsolete — the French word was borrowed again as coupon, which etymologically speaking is a thing cut out.

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Page created 30 Oct 2010