Friday, 13 August 2010

Kips, Kippers and Kippering (NU258198)

Craster (and Seahouses, for that matter) is famous for its kippers – herring (or salmon) fish cured by splitting open, salting, and drying in the open air or smoke. This process of preservation means that the fishy results can be transported long distances before consumption, this usually being via a short grilling for breakfast. The etymology of the word is a curious one, with a connection, it seems, to the modern-day slang for a short sleep – as in ‘having a kip’.

Chronologically, it is difficult to say which came first: the kipper or the kip. The explanation which follows is therefore somewhat circuitous, seeming in places to fall back and in on itself. But I shall have a go.

We’ll start with ‘kipper’, whose meaning is as per above (noun, as in ‘a kipper’, or verb, as in ‘to kipper’). There is an argument which states that the word is derived from the Old English kippian, to spawn; which may be connected to the ‘kip’, or small beak, that male salmon develop during the breeding season. The word kip, kippen or kippa seems to have also generally meant ‘to catch’ across several ancient European languages; similarly, the English kipe denotes a basket used to catch fish – and this ‘catching’ variant of the word seems to go back many centuries, so it could be the original source of the term.

Quite how the terms for the fish ‘beak’, the catching process and then the fish itself came to be related to the curing process of ‘kippering’, though, is not clear. There is a clue, perhaps, in the Danish word kippe, meaning a doss house or hut, which just happens to be the word used to describe the ramshackle sleeping accommodation of the women who used to work on the fish in Craster (viz. ‘kip houses’). And, so the argument goes, because these horrible places were only fit to sleep in, this is where we get the phrase ‘having a kip’ from, when we mean to have a sleep.

So does the word ‘kipper’ (noun and verb) come from the women who slept in the ‘kips’, which was a Danish word, originally? Or does it all start from the old European kip/kippen/kippa, meaning ‘to catch’? I have successfully managed to completely confuse myself … and very probably you too.

Talking of kips, I think it’s time to have a lie down.

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