English English language Etymology Usage Word origin

When a cordwainer made shoes

Q: I enjoyed listening to Pat’s segment on WNYC about “lost” words. I just wanted to toss another one at you: “cordwainer.” It means a shoemaker, but it’s next to unknown now. This I’ve learned since I started to make boots by hand a few years ago. Also, how about “cobbler,” the word for a shoe repair guy?

A: “Cordwainer,” what a wonderful word—once quite common, but now little more than a historical footnote (no pun intended!).

Like some of the other words Pat discussed on that program—“loophole,” “dashboard,” “tenterhooks,” and others—“cordwainer” is rarely seen in its original sense.

Literally, a “cordwainer” is someone who works in “cordwain,” an archaic word for cordovan leather.

The Oxford English Dictionary defines “cordwain,” a noun first recorded in English in the 14th century, as “Spanish leather made originally at Cordova, of goat-skins tanned and dressed, but afterwards frequently of split horse-hides.”

Such leather, the OED adds, was “much used for shoes, etc., by the higher classes during the Middle Ages.” In fact, the dictionary’s earliest citation for “cordwain” shows just what a luxury item this was in medieval times.

In a religious treatise written about 1380, John Wycliffe wrote that although Christ and his disciples went barefoot, “the pope and other bishops will keep their feet full clean with scarlet and cordwain, and sometime with sandals, with gold, with silver, and silk preciously dight.” (We’ve expanded the quotation for context, and translated the Middle English.)

The related word “cordwainer” meant “a worker in cordwain or cordovan leather,” or more simply “a shoemaker,” the OED says.

Interestingly, the word “cordwainer” was recorded in English long before “cordwain” itself. The OED’s earliest citation for “cordwainer” is from a book of land charters in the 11th century.

Both words—“cordwain” and “cordwainer”—came into English by way of Old French.

“Originally in Spanish, Italian, and Old French,” the OED explains, a cordwainer was “a maker of or dealer in cordovan leather; thence in later French and the Germanic languages, a worker in this leather, a shoemaker.”

While “cordwainer” is now obsolete as an ordinary word for a shoemaker, Oxford says, it still exists “as the name of the trade-guild or company of shoemakers” and is “sometimes used by modern trades unions to include all branches of the trade.”

Several of the OED’s later citations, in fact, are about trade unions.

For example, a 1633 edition of The Survey of London says: “The Company of Shoomakers or Cordwainers, as they stile themselves … were first incorporated in the seventeenth yeere of King Henry the sixth.”

And an 1814 entry from the dispatches of the Duke of Wellington refers to “the unanimous resolution of the incorporated Company of Cordwainers of Newcastle upon Tyne.”

So a union or guild that has “cordwainer” in its name today can trace its lineage—at least etymologically—to the leatherworkers of a thousand years ago.

Another old word, “cobbler,” is still used as an ordinary term for someone who repairs shoes.

“Cobbler” is at least as old as 1362, when it appeared in William Langland’s medieval poem Piers Plowman: “Clement the Cobelere caste of his cloke.” (“Clement the cobbler cast off his cloak.”)

The OED suggests that the noun “cobbler” is evidently derived from the verb “cobble,” meaning to mend, patch, or put together in a rough or clumsy way. The source of the verb is unknown, the OED says.

However, the noun “cobbler” was recorded in the 14th century, although its supposed parent, the verb “cobble,” hasn’t yet been found in any written documents older than the 15th.

This leads John Ayto, in his Dictionary of Word Origins, to a different conclusion: “The verb cobble is a back-formation from cobbler,” a noun he describes as being “of unknown origin.” (A back-formation is a new word formed by dropping part of an older one.)

While we’re on the subject, the verb “cobble” and the noun “cobblestone” are unrelated.

An old noun, “cob,” once used in the sense of a roundish lump, is thought to have yielded two nouns meaning rounded stones suitable for paving—“cobble” and “cobblestone.”

Finally, we should mention that the noun “shoemaker” itself first showed up in the late 1300s.  Here’s an OED example from Charles Dickens’s last novel, Our Mutual Friend (1864): “His expression and stoop are like those of a shoemaker.”  

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