When you visit an insurance agency you don’t bring a coffee mug with you, and your smiling insurance agents hardly want your lips on one of their pristine mugs, so you are usually served coffee in a paper cup placed in a little plastic holder with a handle. That plastic holder is called a zarf, an Arabic word meaning sheath and denoting a highly ornamented, metal vessel that holds—like its plastic counterpart—a smaller, plainer, hotter vessel. When the word zarf was adopted by English in the early nineteenth century, it referred only to this elaborate, Middle Eastern cup-holder; it was not until the 1970s that the term was adopted by manufacturers of plastic office products.


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