Q: How did the word “lap” get these three different meanings: (1) the “lap” one swims, (2) the “lap” a baby is held on, and (3) the “lap” of a cat drinking milk?
A: Those three senses of “lap” are derived from two Old English words of prehistoric Germanic origin, the noun læppa (the skirt or flap of a garment) and the verb lapian (to take up a liquid with the tongue).
Læppa is the ultimate source of the “lap” where a baby is held as well as the “lap” in swimming or racing, while lapian is the source of a cat’s lapping milk, according to the Oxford English Dictionary.
The OED says læppa first appeared in Pastoral Care, King Alfred’s late ninth-century translation of Liber Regulae Pastoralis, a sixth-century Latin treatise by Pope Gregory. The noun læppan here is in the accusative case, a direct object:
“forcearf his mentles ænne læppan to tacne dat hə his geweald ahte” (“he [David] cut off a lap of his [Saul’s] robe as a sign that he had him in his power”). Gregory is referring to a biblical passage in which David uses his knife to take a piece of Saul’s robe rather than take the king’s life (1 Samuel 24:3-4).
The use of læppat for the skirt or flap of a garment apparently led to its use for the section of the body under that part of the garment—the area from the waist to the knees of a seated person.
The OED’s earliest example of the usage is from Layamon’s Brut, a 12th-century Middle English history of the British people (it’s called a brut because the history begins with Brutus, the mythical founder of Britain):
“Com þar a bour-cniht and sat adun forþ-riht … he nam þan kynges hefd and leyde vppe his lappe” (“there came a chamber knight and he sat down forthright … he then took the king’s head and laid it upon his lap”). Brian, the knight, had found King Cadwalan asleep in a meadow.
The OED’s first example illustrating a child on a mother’s lap, which we’ve expanded, is from an anonymous 14th-century religious poem: “Als a childe þat sittes in þe moder lappe / And when it list [wishes], soukes hir pappe” (The Pricke of Conscience, circa 1325-50).
In the 19th century, the folding-over sense of læppat apparently led to its use in the sense of a turn around a track in horse racing, first as a verb and then as a noun. Here are the OED’s earliest citations:
- “I told you the brown horse was a mighty fast one for a little ways. But soon I lapped him.” From A Quarter Race in Kentucky, and Other Sketches (1847), by William Trotter Porter.
- “They had gone fourteen ‘laps’ (as these circuits are technically called).” From Chambers’s Journal of Popular Literature, Science and Arts (Nov. 23, 1861).
The usage soon appeared in swimming, where it referred to “one defined stage of a course, typically one or two lengths of a swimming pool,” the OED says.
Here’s the dictionary’s earliest example: “Beckwith … left the water after swimming 3 miles 21 laps, being at the time 7 laps to the bad” (The Times, London, Dec. 24, 1883).
As for the Old English verb lapian (to take up a liquid with the tongue), the first OED citation, which we’ve expanded, is from Bald’s Leechbook, a medical text compiled in the ninth century:
“gebeorh þæt hie ungemeltnesse ne þrowian & god win gehæt & hluttor þicgen on neaht nestig & neaht nestige lapien on hunig” (“as a defense against suffering indigestion, take at night good wine, heated and clear, and, fasting for a night, lap on honey”). By the way, the term “leechbook” comes from the Old English læce (doctor) and boc (book).
Finally, the OED’s first cat-lapping example is from Shakespeare’s The Tempest, believed written around 1610: “They’l take suggestion, as a Cat laps milke.”
In addition to the three senses of “lap” you’ve asked about, the word is used now in many other ways derived from those two Old English words. Here are some examples and the earliest OED dates for them:
“lap dog” (1645), “in fortune’s lap” (1742), waves that “lap” the shore (1855), a “lap” of a journey or other effort (1932), dropping a burden in someone’s “lap” (1962), a “laptop” computer (1983), and “lap dance” (1986).
We’ll end by sharing this “lap dance” example from Anthony Lane’s review of the film Showgirls in the Oct. 16, 1995, issue of The New Yorker:
“To lap-dance, you undress, sit your client down, order him to stay still and fully clothed, then hover over him, making a motion that you have perfected by watching Mister Softee ice cream dispensers.”
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