The Latin word culcita, which meant ‘cushion, mattress,’ is the source of Spanish colcha, which preserves the ancient senses. The original Latin noun also evolved to Old French coi(l)te, whose Anglo-Norman counterpart became English quilt.

The Medieval Latin phrase culcita pūncta, literally ‘stitched quilt,’ became Old French coultepointe, but then under the influence of contre ‘against’ was altered to contrepointe. That passed into Middle English as countrepoint. Then another alteration took place, this time to the second element, and the result was counterpane, whose meaning is still ‘bedspread.’  Perhaps you’ve encountered counterpane in Robert Louis Stevenson’s “The Land of Counterpane,” which you’ll find below.

One more word that English acquired from Latin culcita is quoit, which we use in the plural, quoits, as the name of a game akin to horseshoes. That game was originally played with flat stones that people must have thought looked like little cushions.

© 2015 Steven Schwartzman


The Land of Counterpane

When I was sick and lay a-bed,   
I had two pillows at my head,   
And all my toys beside me lay   
To keep me happy all the day.   
And sometimes for an hour or so     
I watched my leaden soldiers go,   
With different uniforms and drills,   
Among the bed-clothes, through the hills;   
And sometimes sent my ships in fleets   
All up and down among the sheets;  
Or brought my trees and houses out,   
And planted cities all about.   
I was the giant great and still   
That sits upon the pillow-hill,   
And sees before him, dale and plain, 
The pleasant land of counterpane. 

— Robert Louis Stevenson



11 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. Maria F.
    Jan 01, 2016 @ 18:49:50

    What a beautiful poem! It’s amazing how words undergo so many transformations. To think, however, that Robert Louis Stevenson died at the age of 44, makes me wonder how differently people spend their time these days. Authors such as Jack London also, died at 40. These two authors (Stevenson and London) traveled to the Pacific, time for them was so valuable, time was “gold” as they say. So much done in such little time, yet today the art of “postponing” is what children seem to learn.


  2. shoreacres
    Jan 01, 2016 @ 20:53:52

    Over at Practicing Resurrection, Bill had a sick goat, and he was telling us about the special treatment she received as a result. That started some reminiscing about being sick as children: being in bed with ginger ale, new coloring books, and so on. In short, we were remembering our days in the Land of Counterpane.

    I had a beautiful edition of “A Child’s Garden of Verses,” from which that poem came. I still can recite a few of the poems — “Bed in Summer,” “My Shadow,” and “The Swing.” And “The Land of Counterpane,” too, although if my memory hadn’t been jogged, I probably could only have recited the first stanza.


    • Steve Schwartzman
      Jan 01, 2016 @ 21:43:42

      My father used to read us some of the poems from that book. I remember “My Shadow”:

      I have a little shadow that goes in and out with me,
      And what can be the use of him is more than I can see.
      He is very, very like me from the heels up to the head;
      And I see him jump before me, when I jump into my bed.

      The funniest thing about him is the way he likes to grow—
      Not at all like proper children, which is always very slow;
      For he sometimes shoots up taller like an india-rubber ball,
      And he sometimes gets so little that there’s none of him at all.

      He hasn’t got a notion of how children ought to play,
      And can only make a fool of me in every sort of way.
      He stays so close beside me, he’s a coward you can see;
      I’d think shame to stick to nursie as that shadow sticks to me!

      One morning, very early, before the sun was up,
      I rose and found the shining dew on every buttercup;
      But my lazy little shadow, like an arrant sleepy-head,
      Had stayed at home behind me and was fast asleep in bed.


      • shoreacres
        Jan 02, 2016 @ 11:07:23

        After more decades than I like to consider, I realize I’ve been mis-reading and mis-hearing a word in this poem. It’s not “errant,” but “arrant.” And, I had to look up “arrant.” I may have read it, or heard it, and never realized it.


  3. kathryningrid
    Jan 04, 2016 @ 11:59:02

    Delightful! I hadn’t seen that poem in eons. Couched in those words, it all makes such sense, counter to the initial perception….

    Happy 2016, my friend!


    • Steve Schwartzman
      Jan 04, 2016 @ 12:43:48

      As a child I didn’t understand counterpane when I heard the word in this poem, and only well into middle age did I learn what it means. I’m glad the poem brought back pleasant memories for you at the beginning of the happy new year I wish you.


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©2011–2016 Steven Schwartzman
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