Here’s a word that I think could see its use extended a bit. Although in its strictest sense most people don’t use a zarf very often, in a slightly expanded sense a great many North Americans get their hands on one every day.

What is a zarf? Aside from a word useful in crosswords and Scrabble, I mean. Is it one of those little half-barks that dogs make when dreaming? No. Is it some faddish new item of apparel, the last word in a scarf, perhaps? Nope, although it does wrap around something. Is it the beginning of frazzle backwards? N— well, yes, it is that too, but who uses it for that? Is it like zaftig? If by “like” you mean it starts with the same two letters and has a third letter in common, then yes; otherwise, not really.

If you have every consumed a hot liquid from a cup (probably glass or porcelain) that was held in a (usually) metal holder with a handle, usually a pretty and ornate thing that goes about halfway up the cup, then you have touched a zarf. This is most likely in the context of Middle Eastern (especially Lebanese) food, although I have had Italian-style beverages from such cups too. Actually, somewhere in my apartment we have a set of them. I think I know where.

But how about those corrugated paper sleeves, those little tube-tops for coffee cups, that are used for holding the paper cups at Starbucks and other such places? Tell me, what do you call them? And if other people started calling them zarfs, would you? I would. Actually, I already do. They’re not metal, true, and they don’t have a handle, but they serve the same function: to wrap around a cup of hot liquid to enable easier holding without burning fingers, staying in place due to the fact that the cup is wider at the top than at the bottom. I think those are the most essential qualities; the material and the protruding handle are less central to the semantic construct.

Well, so say I. I also just like saying “zarf”; it sounds like a sound effect for a Van de Graaff generator. And it has a fun look, with the angular z at one end and the tall, floppy f at the other. The original looks quite different, since it’s an Arabic word (ظرف), and it sounds a little different too. But, then, it also originally meant ‘container’ or ‘envelope’, so that pretty much settles it. Wikipedia agrees, too: “Coffee in disposable cups is often served by fast-food restaurants in holders of stiff paper. These too are zarfs.” Or, if you feel like using the Arabic plural (which, since we’re speaking English, I don’t encourage), zuruuf.

Well, there it is. An eye-catching form that serves to ease the handling of something fluid; a container borrowed from one place to serve a purpose in another. Such is zarf the word. And zarf the thing.

4 responses to “zarf

  1. Pingback: word love |

  2. Pingback: Language Blog Roundup: dude, Victorian slang, shaming and mansplaining | Wordnik

  3. At Starbucks, the baristas will try to tell you that these are called “cup holders”. Please correct them!

  4. They called those old-fashion, double-cone, steel holders, used in the soda fountains of long ago, zarfs. They were used to hold a conical paper cup, into which the soda jerk (called so for the motions required in his job, not his personality) dispensed the syrup and soda.

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