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When I was a child in the 1950s I remember my mother calling the domestic hot water tank 'the cubalow', sounding like 'queuebelow'. Has anyone else heard this word being used?

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    Relevant: etymology of cubby / cubbyhole. I really have to imagine cubalow is etymologically related to cubbyhole; possibly the water heater was cloistered in a small, dedicated closet or shed.
    – Dan Bron
    Apr 17, 2016 at 18:34
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    Was it the tank only or the hot water heater/furnace as well? A cube was a furnace shaft and alow (in Yorkshire) meant 'ablaze, on fire'. Kilns were said to be 'alow'.
    – TimR
    Apr 17, 2016 at 18:49
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    Are you sure the word was not 'cupola'?
    – jamesqf
    Apr 17, 2016 at 21:17
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    Sounds like queuebelow, so don't think it could be cupola or a corruption of it. Apr 17, 2016 at 21:27
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    @PeterDunning My dictionary defines a cupola furnace as a cylindrical furnace for refining metals, with openings at the bottom for blowing in air and originally with a dome leading to a chimney above. Do you really think your mum had such a device in the house? I tend to the idea of cube alow as more likely.
    – WS2
    Apr 17, 2016 at 23:12

10 Answers 10

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I found several instances of this word being used, but always as a small structure that is part of a building, not a hot water tank. Do you think that's possible?

The Yorkshire Post has an article about a Yorkshire dialect dictionary, and the author of the dictionary says this: " "In terms of accent, Tykes may all share some similarities, but the words are often peculiar to specific area. I had one woman write to me suggesting the word 'cubalow', it's a lovely word for a low cupboard in the kitchen and she thought it might have had it roots in cubby hole. I couldn't find anyone else who used it, and she did admit that it may have been specific to her own house. I love the thought of families making up their own language." He retells the same story for the BBC.

On Facebook, a US company that makes metal buildings shows a picture of a barn they made with a "3x3 [foot] cubalow".

A website that gathers information important to Ontario, Canada, tells a story about fire towers that have cubalows: "After the big fires the government contracted wooden fire towers to be built on the higher areas." " The first lookout on Green’s Mountain was a one storey shack with a 7’ square windowed cubalow (i.e., cupola) for a 2nd storey.

In 1821, a town in northeastern United States added a porch to their meeting-house instead of a cubalow.

You can find these articles by googling "cubalow" -cuba (that is, your word inside double-quote marks, and then a minus sign next to the word 'cuba').

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  • Thank you very much everyone, and it looks as though the article from the Yorkshire Post is very helpful Katherine. I had expected very little interest in my question, I thank you all again. Apr 18, 2016 at 8:17
  • It's a really nice word, I think i'm going to look for an excuse to start using it in our house. Jun 3, 2016 at 14:48
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The Scholar’s Companion has a lovely list of ‘Improprieties Heard in Conversation’, which includes

Cupelo, for cupola

This afterword to a poetry book gives

Cupelo – cupola, a furnace
and This French book about… stuff, seems to back up the ‘furnace’ association and also gives a spelling of ‘cubilot’ which I can imagine giving rise to the ‘cubilow/cubalow’ spelling of the OP.

Interglot gives 'cupola furnace' as the direct translation from the French of 'cubilot'and Google Translate confirms a pronunciation of approximately 'queue-below'.

My speculation therefore is this:

  • It is not many generations ago that Hot Water cylinders were an unknown thing in UK houses. My Grandparents in Lancashire certainly didn't have them in their youth.
  • Smaller Cupola furnaces look quite a lot like hot water cylinders
  • People who were familiar with cupola furnaces in their industry transferred the name to hot water cylinders.

So the next question is: what foundry industries in Yorkshire (or Shetland) might have been using the French word for cupola furnace?

or... (Once you get googling on a subject you find all sorts) it is just straightforward French usage for the fire box used to heat water. I found this image enter image description here which is captioned

la lessiveuse à bouillir sur son cubilot
The washing machine to boil on its cupola

The website this comes from appears to be about the history of a laundry.

So the real questions appears to be, how did Yorkshire women come to be using French laundry terms?

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My mother, from Hull, East Yorkshire, always referred to the cupboard housing the hot water cylinder as the 'cubelow', pronounced queue-below. She didn't know why and couldn't spell it either.

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My mother also used the word cubalow when talking about the ' airing cupboard' which is where the hot water cylinder was housed. We also lived in East Yorkshire in a village near Hull. I was a child in the 1940s.

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Instances of cubelow appear in geographically distant parts of Australia in 1875, 1890, and 1900. From Robert Bruce (of Wallelberdina, South Australia), "The Flies: A Puff for Professor Holloway)," in The Dingoes, and Other Tales (1875):

On them [sores on one's hands] the small flies revel fierce, / And with proboscis probe and pierce, / Digging small trenches all around, / Like engineers in hostile ground; / Causing each place to smart and swell, / And you to wish all flies in ——— / well , A baker's oven at red glow, / A lime-kiln or a cubelow.

From an auction notice in in the [Sydney, New South Wales] Evening News (March 5, 1890):

TO-MORROW, THURSDAY, March 67, at 11 a.m. sharp, To IRONFOUNDERS, DEALERS, ENGINEERS, MACHINISTS, and Others. Important and Unreserved Sale of MACHINERY and CASTINGS, comprising—Castings, Patterns in brass, lead, and wood, Drilling Machines, Grindstones, Boilers, Anvils, Vices, Smith's Tools, Cubelow Funnels. Avery's Weighing Machine. Patent Block and Tackle, with Girder. Also a quantity of Scrap Iron, Shafting and Pulleys, &c. Iron Safe, Letter Press, &c, &c.

And from an auction notice in the [Perth, Western Australia] West Australian (May 30, 1900):

To IRONFOUNDERS and OTHERS. SALE of CONTENTS of FOUNDRY, Corner of South Terrace and Suffolk Street. G. C. WAGHORN will Sell as above, under instructions from the owner, THIS DAY (Wednesday), at 2 o'clock sharp, a large quantity of Foundry Utensils, comprising—ENGINE AND BOILER, Fan and Cubelow, ton and a half Fringe Patterns, 3 tons Boxes for Castings, 2 tons Cast Iron (various), 6 sets Verandah Columns (complete), Patterns for Smelting Works (slag pots, etc.), 1 ton Verandah Column boxes (all new), 1 Lead Kettle and Mould Complete, a Variety of Wheel Moulds and other articles too numerous to mention; Tools, various kinds, for Foundry.

Matches for cupelo in the sense of "furnace" go back considerably farther in Australia, and fairly early in and the United States as well. For example, from "New Zealand: Wellington," in the [Melbourne, Victoria] Argus (April 3, 1858):

On Monday, tho 1st ult, the foundry recently erected by Mr. W. Mason, on Wellington terrace, commenced operations. Several castings were made, with perfect success. The present cupelo is capable of smelting from 10 to 12 cwt. of metal. The brass furnace will be in operation in about a week.

From an auction notice in the [Melbourne, Victoria] Argus (February 19, 1872):

KNIPE, GEORGE have received instructions from the proprietors, Ainley, Roberts, and Cochrane, 1 Little Lonsdale street street east (in consequence of dissolution of partnership), to SELL by PUBLIC AUCTION, The whole of their plant and stock in trade, consisting of smiths' tools lathe, moulding boxes, cupelo moulding sand, benches, vyces, fitters' and fireproof safe makers' tools, steam-engine and boiler, fan, shears, and all the usual appliances for a general trade.

And from "Chickasaw Ironworks," in the Memphis [Tennessee] Daily Appeal (May 25, 1879):

An Appeal reporter, while wandering up-town yesterday, dropped into the Chickasaw iron-works, 93 Second street, and witnessed the process of casting. The red-hot, seething metal from the cupelo, carried in pots to the flasks and poured in amid sparks, smoke and flame, was a picture fit for the pencil of Rembrandt. The swarthy workmen, stripped and begrimmed with smoke and dirt, moved noiselessly but carefully around as the heated metal was carried about and poured into flasks or moulds.

These instances strongly support Spagirl's argument that cubalow or cubelow originated as cupelo (for foundry furnace) but was re-rendered as heard pronounced by various speakers (in Australia, at any rate). The hypothesis that a similar process of mishearing is responsible for cubalow in the sense of "water heater" or "water-heater enclosure" in Yorkshire remains to be proved and documented, but it would hardly be shocking if true.

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I live in Beverley but came from Hull. I am 77 years old and my mother also used the word cubalow to refer to a hot water storage cylinder.

No clue where the word came from, though. My mother was born in Hull too, so there's no influence from other parts of the UK.

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  • I thought I had heard it at least once before: I lived in Beverley and worked in Hull from the late 60s to the mid-80s. It must have been from that time. I wonder if it were a trade-name.
    – Greybeard
    Mar 12, 2023 at 23:51
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My Mother and Grandmother used the term cubalow when referring to the airing cupboard

Both were from Kingston-upon-Hull so I guess its origin is in East Yorkshire as others have indicated.

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    Welcome to English Language & Usage SE! Could you please improve your answer a bit by adding the time period you are referring to (your mother and grandmother)?
    – Tsundoku
    Aug 20, 2018 at 19:57
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My mother used this for the airing cupoard/hot water tank - I was born in 1970's . "Cubelow" was supposed spelling. East Yorkshire, Beverley near Hull. My parents didn't use much local vernacular, I thought this word was something she'd got from her Scandinavian heritage, but obviously not!

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'Cubalow' is also in Chelp and Chunter: How to Talk Tyke,

noun, (spoken in East Yorkshire): an airing cupboard [from an attempt to write down the word cubbyhole, I would guess]

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Researching the term threw up the same answers as previous. One other reference not yet alluded to is to be found at Page 3 Advertisements Column 4,Auckland Star, Volume XXXVIII, Issue 196 August 17th 1907. The advertisement is aimed at Blacksmiths and is selling sundry items including 'cabalow'. No description is given more than this. https://paperspast.natlib.govt.nz/newspapers/AS19070817.2.15.4

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  • I could only get your link to work by removing ‘beta.’
    – Spagirl
    Aug 20, 2018 at 21:42

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