Intermediate+ Word of the Day: taper

taper (verb, noun) /ˈteɪpɚ/ LISTEN

To taper means ‘to become thinner towards the end’ and also ‘to make thinner towards the end’ or ‘to reduce gradually.’ Always followed by off, taper means ‘ to decrease’ or ‘to be reduced by degrees.’ As a noun, a taper is a gradual decrease in width. It is also a very slender candle or a wick for lighting a candle or lamp. Unrelatedly, a taper is also a person who records or edits magnetic tapes.

Example sentences

  • The table legs taper at the bottom.
  • The tailor is tapering the jacket.
  • Management is tapering the budget for this department.
  • The snow should taper off by the end of the night.
  • The taper of that church spire is quite distinctive.
  • The old man lit a taper in the church.
  • I used a taper to light the lamp.
  • In the 1980s, tapers would record the radio broadcast of the music charts every week.

In pop culture

Listen to American indie band Waxahatchee singing “A Little More” here:

Listen out for the lyric “And the feeling tapers off, my feeling tapers off.”

Did you know?

A taper cut is a haircut where the hair is left longer on top and cut gradually shorter as it comes down the sides and the back of the head. You can see a taper cut being done here:


Taper dates back to before the year 900. The Old English noun tapur or taper (just taper in Middle English) meant ‘wax candle.’ The word is only found in English, and its origin is uncertain, but many linguists believe it evolved from a borrowing of papyrus (some even suggest the word could have been papur or something similar, and possibly meant paper). Papyrus (which was used in Medieval Latin to mean ‘the wick of a candle’ because wicks were often made of papyrus pith), was both a specific type of plant used to make paper and the paper that was made from it in Latin, and can be traced back to the Greek papyros (any of the plants used to make paper), though it is thought to be of Egyptian origin. It is related to the Italian papijo (wick). The meaning evolved into a specific type of thin candle or wick by the 15th century. The sense ‘a gradual decrease in width’ appeared in the early 17th century. Between the 14th and 16th centuries, taper was also an adjective (now obsolete) meaning ‘shaped like a flame or spire.’ The verb, originally meaning ‘to shoot up like a flame or spire’ came from this adjective (and indirectly from the noun). The sense ‘to become slender or decrease in size or force’ was first recorded around the year 1600 (the related noun sense evolved from this sense of the verb), and ‘to make slender’ dates back to the late 17th century. The unrelated noun taper, meaning ‘a person who records or edits tapes,’ is a construction of the noun tape – er, and dates back to the mid-20th century.

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