Here’s how the King James version of the Bible reported the instructions given to Noah for building a large boat in which to escape the coming deluge: “The length of the ark shall be three hundred cubits, the breadth of it fifty cubits, and the height of it thirty cubits.” By context, a cúbito/cubit was clearly a unit of measurement, but how long was it? For the Romans, cubitum meant ‘an elbow,’ and by extension—literally—‘the distance from the end of a person’s elbow to the tip of the middle finger.’ The problem with all such anthropomorphic units of measurement, like the English foot and the Spanish pulgada, is that a given body part can vary quite a lot in size from one person to another. Eventually people abstracted and standardized many of those body-based units in order to avoid ambiguity, but even then different cultures standardized in different ways. In 1828 Noah Webster noted in his American Dictionary of the English Language: “The cubit among the ancients was of a different length among different nations. Dr. Arbuthnot states the Roman cubit at seventeen inches and four tenths; the cubit of the scriptures at a little less than 22 inches; and the English cubit at 18 inches.”
Not only did Spanish borrow Latin cubitum as cúbito, but the Latin word evolved by natural processes to Old Spanish cobdo and modern codo, which retains the original meaning of ‘elbow.’ As a result, cúbito and codo are Spanish doublets.
© 2011 Steven Schwartzman