Why Your Lap is Called That

Oakley420 asks: Why is a lap called a lap?

lapUsed as a noun, verb and adjective, most with several distinct meanings, lap is a prominent word in the English language.

One of its most common meanings denotes the upper part of the legs when seated. Derived from a Proto-Germanic word *lapp, meaning the “skirt or flap of a garment,” or as the OED notes, “A part (of a garment or the like) either hanging down or projecting so as to admit of being folded over.” (Think toga, or the front of a robe.) This ultimately derived from the Proto-Indo-Eurpoean root “*leb”, meaning “be loose, hang down.”

This was later incorporated by a variety of early languages, including Old Saxon and Old High German (lappa), Middle Dutch and Dutch (lappe and lap), and, of course, Old English (læppa).

The first known instance of “lap” meaning the top of the space between your hips and your knees when seated occurred in 1275 in Layamon, The Brut:

Com þar a bour-cniht and sat adun forþ riht‥he nam þan kynges hefd and leyde vppe his lappe

And then more notably in the prologue of Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales in the late 14th century, “His walet lay biforn hym in his lappe.”

A second popular meaning, to pull up liquid with the tongue, also dates back to Old English (500-1150 AD) with the word lapian, first documented around the year 1000. 

If you’re wondering about the sense of a trip around a track or the like, in the mid-1600s, one meaning of lap was something coiled up. By the mid-1800s, this morphed into “laps” of a track.

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Bonus Facts:

  • The phrase lap of luxury meaning living conditions of great comfort and wealth, dates to at least the mid-1800s where D.W. Belisle wrote in The American Family Robinson, “it is really surprising to one reared in the lap of luxury how little is actually necessary to support the human body healthfully.”
  • Being out of control and at the whim of fate, being in the lap of the gods, traces its roots to a translation of Homer’s Illiad and Odyssey, made either in the late 19th or early 20th centuries by S.H. Butcher and A. Lang where they wrote: “Yet verily these issues lie on the lap of the gods.”
  • Laptop is of purely English origin and was coined in the mid 1980s to denote a portable computer. Desktop is an English word dating from the late 1920s and originally meant (funny enough) the surface of a desk; its denotation as an adjective to describe a type of computer dates to 1958, and as a proper name of a type of computer in the early 1980s.
  • Lap dance is a relatively recent term, and traces its origins to the mid-1980s, with the first known instance mentioned in a August 16, 1986 edition of the San Francisco Chronically. “Prostitution and other charges were filed against dancers for various acts, including performing ‘*lap dances’ while sitting on customers.” From there, very few documented instances of it exist until the mid-1990s and the release of the movie Showgirls. For instance, Anthony Lane of the New Yorker, described the practice to the public when reviewing the 1995 film: “To lap dance, you undress, sit your client down, order him to stay still and fully clothed, then hover over him, making a motion that you have perfected by watching Mister Softee ice cream dispensers.”
  • Another “lap” related word, Lapland, was introduced in English in the 1570s, originally described a mythical place that was home to wizards and witches who had the power to control the winds and tempests. Lapland’s later meaning, of a portion of Northern Europe above the Arctic Circle, including portions of Norway, Sweden, Finland and Russia, was introduced in English somewhat later (perhaps as late as the mid-1800s). Using Lapp, to denote the people of Lapland (who much prefer to be called the Sami), was in use in Sweden by the mid-1500s and had become standard by 1673.
  • The indigenous Sami people of Sápmi are of Finno-Ugric descent, and they view the terms Lap, Lapp and Laplanders as pejoratives. Although precisely why isn’t clear, it may be that the term lap is seen as comparing their custom of wearing the multi-colored gákti, a garment adorned with different colored bands, tin art, plaits and pewter embroidery, as akin to the “rag” or “a patch of cloth for mending,” that the term denotes in many Scandinavian languages. Another reason they may consider the word an insult is that in Finnish, lape, means “periphery.”
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One comment

  • That’s funny to me that there is an answer for everything online. My mom was pondering this question the other day and I thought “I dunno, why do they call this a “pencil”, or this a “floor” and so forth… so out of boredom I googled it and Wala!