Daily Archives: July 2, 2010


There’s something big, I feel, in gow. It seems more than enow. It may be that I am put in mind of gaur, a big bovine, or cow, or maybe gabhar (pronounced “gower”), Irish for “goat”. The voiced stop at the beginning adds a sense of weight and bluntness, as does the rounded back vowel. As to the pen (which is said with a schwa), it holds a taste of open, and also suggests an enclosure – for your cow, gaur, or goat. And perhaps it follows from pasture to table; the word also gives a taste of gulping.

Well, it’s a handful. Actually, it’s two hands full. I mean this: this word has nothing specific to do with bovines or pens, but it does come with volume, and openness (at the top and enclosure on the bottom), and roundness, and plenitude. Cup your two hands together as though to scoop water or receive loose grains, and you have a gowpen – and the amount contained by a gowpen is also a gowpen. So the ow is fitting: not just in its roundness and largeness (both phonaesthetically and in the actual mouth gesture of saying it) but in the o as the hands seen from above and the w as portraying two hands side by side.

We don’t use this word much anymore, provided by we is not meant Scottish people. Not that the Scots use it a lot, but if you want it, that’s where to get it (if you happened to work for a miller, it was your perquisite, in fact). Sir Walter Scott certainly used the word. It’s not from the Gaelic, though; it comes from Old Norse. The word gaupn originally meant just one cupped hand, and in the plural two; now it’s a singular meaning two.

I do think this is a definition that has long wanted a word – and had one without most people knowing it. We generally make do with cupped hands. Not that we use cupped hands so much anymore; for many in our society now, the gesture is emblematic not of plenitude but of the gesture of some emaciated beggar or famine victim who has not even a bowl. It is also how we hold some almost unbearably cute little animal, be it bird, kitten, marmoset, or whatnot. But to lift a gowpen or water or of meal – well, we don’t have too many gowpen gourmets.

Thanks to a commenter who goes by “Upstarter” for suggesting gowpen.