I still subscribe to Modern Moat magazine.
Dear Word Detective: What is a “keep” in reference to a castle? — Helen.
That’s an interesting question. When I was a kid, I desperately wanted to live in a castle with a moat and a drawbridge. Given that almost every human culture has built castle-like structures at some time, I suspect that an impregnable home is a basic human desire, especially for folks who suspect that their neighbors might be less than neighborly. I don’t think I would ever have actually mounted the ramparts and poured boiling oil on that obnoxious kid down the street, but it would have been cool to be able to, say, drop water balloons on him and his stupid sister. But we didn’t have the money for a castle, so I had to settle for hiding behind the couch. I think it’s interesting, by the way, that historically the people who could afford castles tended to need them because of the way they got the money to buy the castle. Ironic, eh? With a really good tax lawyer, you could probably even deduct the boiling oil.
Onward. Today we know “keep” primarily as a verb with a wide range of meanings. To “keep” can mean “to preserve; maintain” (“keep safe”), “to fulfill” (“keep a promise”), “to restrain or detain” (“keep home from school”), “to continue” (“keep quiet”), or just plain “to hold on to” (“Bob kept the watch he found in Sam’s couch”). The origin of “keep” in English is a bit mysterious and more than a little strange. Our Modern English “keep” was “cepan” in Old English, but that’s as far back as anyone has been able to trace the word. The odd thing is that “cepan” popped up in written Old English quite suddenly, already carrying many of our modern senses of “keep.” Apparently “cepan” had been in use for a long, long time among the “common people,” but since it wasn’t generally used by the “literary” stratum of society, by the time it finally appeared in writing it had matured into all those meanings. Of course, this sort of “under the radar” existence was not uncommon in slang and underworld vernacular as recently as the late 20th century, but few of those words have gone on to assume the sort of central role played by “keep.” The advent of the internet, of course, has, for better or worse, made detecting new words and phrases much easier.
“Keep” as a noun has always been a pale shadow of its verb sibling. It first appeared around 1300 meaning “care, attention, notice” (“take keep” was synonymous with “take care,” for instance). And that usage, now largely considered antiquated, has been pretty much it for “keep” as a noun. Except, of course, the castle “keep.”
The “keep” in a castle of the sort built in Medieval Europe was a sort of “safe room,” a fortified tower built into the castle. If the primary fortifications and defenses failed to repel an attacking force, the Important People would skedaddle to the keep, where they could wait for rescue and perhaps feel a twinge of regret at not having been nicer to the peasants. In some castles, the “keep” was simply the heavily-fortified residence of the castle’s owner. This “keep” first appears in print around 1586 (“He, who stood as watche upon the top of the keepe.”), and may have simply been a specialized application of the “care” or “preserving” sense of the noun. But some scholars maintain that this particular “keep” arose as a translation of the Italian term “tenazza,” meaning a fortified tower within a castle, “tenazza” meaning literally “to hold” or “to preserve.” Wikipedia actually has a very interesting article on “keeps” down through the ages (and offers a different etymology of the term, which I take with a grain of salt).
“Keeps” of the castle sort are just tourist attractions today, but the growth of gated communities and the private security industry proves that some things never change, and royalty will always come with a twinge of foreboding about the peasants.