Certs is a breath mint, dammit.

Dear Word Detective: A friend goes berserk when he hears a reference to a “countertop.”  He claims that the counter IS the top of a piece of furniture from which business is transacted or food is served. My take is that the counter begins at the floor and continues upward via frame or legs and ends with a “top,” hence a countertop is the surface of the counter.  Can you help settle this simple disagreement? — Roger Castanien.

Hmm. OK. Stop me if you’ve heard this one. Two Philosophy majors walk into a home furnishings store…. But seriously, have you guys considered asking the folks at Home Depot or Lowe’s? In the commercials they seem very wide-awake and helpful. And the last time I was in one of those places it was so devoid of customers that I wondered for a moment whether it might actually be closed. So I’m sure that one of the two or three remaining employees would be up for an in-depth discussion of kitchen nomenclature.

Maybe it’s because I have chronically low blood pressure, but I find it amazing that anyone can “go berserk” over a usage question. But it’s an interesting question, because “counter” is an interesting word.

There are actually two separate “counters” in English, drawn from two entirely different roots. The “counter” we can safely ignore in the context of your question is “counter” carrying the general meaning “against,” which is used as an adjective, adverb, noun, verb (“We countered his demands for a raise with a pink slip”) and a very popular prefix (e.g., “counterinsurgency,” “counterclockwise”). This “counter” comes from the Latin “contra,” meaning “against.”

The relevant “counter” for our purposes comes from the Latin verb “computare,” meaning “to calculate or count,” which is also the source of our English “compute,” “computer,” etc. This English “counter” came to us from Latin via the Old French form “conteoir,” which is why there’s so little family resemblance with “computer.”

This “counter” first appeared in English in the 14th century with two general meanings. (They’re actually considered two separate words because they have slightly different Old French roots, but they merged in English.) The first meaning was “a person who counts or keeps count.” The second was “a thing used to keep count,” such as a marker, counting board, abacus, etc.

By the mid-15th century, that second meaning led to “counter” being applied to a desk where money was counted, such as in a bank, and by the 17th century “counter” was in use meaning a table in a shop where money is accepted (and counted, of course) and across which goods are handed to the purchaser. Ta-da, the modern counter was born, and soon goods were being dispensed “over the counter” or, if illicit, “under the counter.” Our modern kitchen counter is so-called from its resemblance to the “counter” in a shop.

The term “countertop” first appeared in the late 19th century with reference to the counters in stores (“Some brutal tradesmen … affix tremendous nails … to the fronts of their counter tops, in order to keep their visitors at a respectful distance,” Travels in West Africa, Kingsley, 1897). It’s been in constant use ever since to mean the surface at the top of a counter (“A child whose lint-white head scarcely reaches the counter-top,” 1908), and no modern home decorating TV show is complete without an agonizing appraisal of somebody’s kitchen countertops, be they granite, wood or plebeian Formica.

As for your argument with your friend, the very existence of the term “countertop” would tend to indicate (to me, anyway) that the countertop is somewhat separate from the counter as a whole, although the counter as a whole could be assumed to include a countertop. So I guess I’m on your side, and the counter is the whole piece of furniture, not just its top.

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