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Why We "Stave Off" Colds: It Started With Wine

"I'm trying to stave off a cold," a friend said. Another responded, "Wine will work for that."

Neither probably realized that, indeed, to "stave off" has its origins in wine, or something like wine.

Nowadays, "stave off" means to keep at bay, fight off, or defend against. But in its original, noun form, around 1400, the Oxford English Dictionary says, a "stave" was a thin strip of wood that was curved to make a cask or barrel. (The singular "stave" was actually a backformation of the plural "staves"; the plural may have come first because, after all, you can't make a cask with just one "stave.") Much of the time, those casks made from "staves" held wine.

A "stave" was also the stem of a ship, the curved and most forward part of the structure.

"Staves" was originally the plural of "staff," a long rod or walking stick. So by extension, many kinds of sticks or rods, including the staffs of a lance or other weapon, were known as "staves."

"Stave" became a verb around 1595, the OED says, meaning to break that barrel back into "staves," or to break up the barrel to destroy the wine or other contents. (What a waste.) Later, "to stave" meant to crush, usually accompanied by the preposition "in"; the past tense is "stove," as in "The Kraken stove in the stave of the ship."

By the 1600s, "stave" meant "To drive off or beat with a staff or stave; esp. in to stave off, to beat off," the OED says. While the original use was meant literally, as in to "stave off" an attack on the castle, possibly using lances or other weapons with "staves," the common uses today are figurative, as in "staving off" a cold. Preferably with wine from a cask made with "staves."

You'd think that the person using the "staves" to make the cask is a "staver." Would that English were so simple. No, the person making the cask is a "cooper."

That word is not quite as old as "stave," the OED says, tracing it to around 1450 to refer to the "craftsman who makes and repairs wooden vessels formed of staves and hoops, as casks, buckets, tubs." The people sampling, bottling, or retailing wine were "wine-coopers."

If you catch that cold despite the wine, you might be "cooped up" for a while, stuck in a constrained space, like a pigeon "coop." And because "coopers" make things that keep wine "cooped up" in barrels, you'd think a "coop" is related. But the OED says "cooper" "is not an English derivative of coop, which, so far as appears, has never had the sense 'cask'."

Instead, "a coop" was a basket. Just try keeping wine in that.

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Merrill Perlman is adjunct assistant professor at the Columbia Graduate School of Journalism and president of Merrill Perlman Consulting, offering consulting and freelance editing services and training in journalism, grammar and usage. Among her clients are The New York Times, ProPublica and the Poynter Institute. She writes the "Language Corner" column and blog for Columbia Journalism Review. Merrill retired in June 2008 after 25 years at The New York Times, most recently as director of copy desks with responsibility for managing 150 copy editors. Click here to read more articles by Merrill Perlman.