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Issue 37

April 20, 1999
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Spotlight We spotlight an etymological curiosity and provide an in-depth examination of the word(s) and the etymological theories associated with it.
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The recent unpleasantness in the Balkans has prompted us to discuss the origin of certain military words.  One particularly odd expression is point-blank and there seems to be some confusion about its origin.  (At least there was until now.)

The Oxford English Dictionary, great-grandaddy of all etymological textbooks, suggests that it comes from archery.  The target for medieval archery practice was usually a white cloth or a cloth with a white spot.  This was called, naturally enough, the whiteThe OED, therefore, conjectures that point-blank represents the English form of a French phrase: point blanc meaning "white point", i.e. the white spot on the target.  Unfortunately, there are several problems with this theory.  The phrase point blanc is not known in French and there is no evidence that the archer's white was ever called the point blank.  In fact, there is no record of the phrase being used in archery at all.

All the early (16th century) uses of point-blank come from artillery and do not refer to a target but to  the angle of elevation of a cannon.  In 1537, Niccolo Tartaglia, an Italian mathematician, published the first scientific treatise on gunnery and over the next ten years perfected the gunner's quadrant, an aid in aiming.  This device consisted of two wooden arms at right angles between which was an arc marked with twelve divisions (known as points) with a plumb-line attached at the angle.  To use the quadrant, a gunner inserted the longer of its two arms in the cannon's muzzle and read the point at which the plumb-line crossed the arc.  When the gun was aimed vertically the plumb-line crossed the quadrant's arc at the twelfth division.  This was called point twelve.  When the gun was horizontal the plumb-line crossed the arc at zero.    Back in the 16th century, most people still used Roman numerals and zero was still a foreign concept so instead of calling this reading point zero they called it point blank.


Another of Tartaglia's achievements was to demonstrate that a projectile always follows a parabolic trajectory.  Despite this, gunners as late as the 19th century believed that a cannon ball, if fired horizontally, would travel horizontally at first and then it would suddenly drop.  The distance to the point at which this drop was supposed to occur became known as point-blank range.


AG00003_.gif (10348 bytes) Words to the Wise

Your Etymological Queries Answered

From Michael & Sarah Mattson:

Does the word pussy come from earlier English versions of cat or is it derived from another language?

Well, it's a little of both and much of neither.  The earlier form was puss and, rather than meaning a cat, it was a pet name which was so frequently applied to cats that eventually it became synonymous with cat.  Much the same happened with donkey.   Asses were so often called by the name Duncan that a Duncan (then a dunkey, then a donkey) came to mean an ass.

So, does puss derive from a foreign language?  If you look back far enough, all English words come from a foreign language.  Puss certainly has relatives in many European languages, not only in the Germanic languages such as Dutch poes, Low German puus-katte and Norwegian puus but also in Lithuanian puz, and Gaelic pus.   Its presence in such distantly related languages indicates that its origins are in their ancient common ancestor.  Unfortunately, its original meaning is unknown.



From Martin McClellan:

I'm looking for the origin of the word kitty as it refers to a collection of monies.

This has nothing to do with the kitty which means cat.  That word is merely a familiar form of kitten.   This kind of kitty may have something to do with goats, however.

The word is thought to come from kidcote (or kidcot) which was the name of the local jail in various English towns.   The origin of this name is uncertain but it may have been a facetious nickname as the literal meaning of a kidcote is "a pen used to confine young goats".   The kitty which is a sum of money may be so-called because it is "locked up" until it is needed.



From Christian and Julie:

We really want to know the origin of beluga as it relates not only to whales but is it also some mountain in Asia?

PS: There may also be beluga caviar.

First, there is no mountain called beluga but there most certainly is beluga caviar.  The connection between whales and caviar is to be found in the Russian word bieluga, from bielyi, "white".  The beluga whale is Delphinapterus leucas, the "white whale" and beluga caviar is the roe of the beluga (or "white") sturgeon.

The Russian bielyi is related to the Greek phalios, "having a white spot", the Latin fulica, "a coot" and, distantly, to our word bald.  The expression "as bald as a coot" derives from the distinctive white patch above the coot's bill.



From Kathy Gray:

Can you tell me the etymology of the word puppy?

Why, certainly.  Believe it or not, it comes from the Old French popee, "doll" (compare Modern French poupée).   A young dog was called a puppy-dog because it was thought of as a plaything.  Ultimately, the word comes from the Latin pupa, which could mean "a girl" or "a doll".  Thus, our words pupa, puppet, and, even more surprisingly, pupil (in both senses) are related.



From Tim Cooper:

My daughter, an avid equestrian, asked where the word horse originated and what it meant. All I have been able to discover is Webster's note that it came from Middle English hors which was handed down from Old English and is possibly derived from Old Norse hrata which means "to stagger, fall".

Words similar to horse are common to all Germanic languages and, while it is true that hors was used in Middle English, it existed even earlier than that in Old English (c. 825).  The Norse word was hross which, like hors, is thought to come from the Pre-Teutonic root *korso-, via the Old Teutonic *horso-.  This would make it a relative of the Latin currere "to run" and hence of English course.

We have other bones to pick with Webster.  See Curmudgeon's Corner, below.



From Tim Cooper:

Could you please inform me of the origin of the phrases stag night and hen night which refer to the pre-marital celebrations held by each of the intended partners?

It may surprise you to learn that the word stag hasn't always meant "male deer".  In Middle English, stag (from the Old English stacga) could mean the adult male of any animal, especially if castrated (!).  In the 19th century it was even used to mean a turkey-cock [see Letters, below] of two years or older.  Thus, a stag-night or stag-dinner was a function attended by males only.

Similarly, in Middle English, hen could mean the female of any bird.  Thus a hen night or hen party is one which is exclusively female. 

Unlike stag, which meant any male animal, the Old English henn meant a fowl of either sex.


curmdgeon.GIF (1254 bytes) Curmudgeon's Corner

...our soapbox where we vent our spleen regarding abuses of the English language.

Your turn!

Dr. James Coleman provides us with one of his language-related pet peeves:

Thanks for your webzine. It continues to be both entertaining and enlightening. I submit for your curmudgeonly consideration an item of current usage:

Use of the neologism momento to mean memento.  My current unabridged Webster's even lists momento with the definition "a remembrance".

Grrrrrr!  This is a complaint with which we heartily agree!  Here's another reason to Take Our Word For It and not that of the dictionaries!

Believe it or not, even great writers of English have made this mistake.  George Eliot used momento in 1871 in this incorrect sense, albeit in her journal, and the revered Dylan Thomas (Welsh national anthem suddenly heard in the background) used it in a letter in 1941!  The OED lists it as a variant of memento, but this usage presumably arose out of confusion with the  word moment.


Sez You...

From Joe Sharpe:

We all know that the North American turkey was misnamed by the British.   Does anybody know the original name of this species of fowl?

Well it wasn't just the British.  As the turkey-bird is a New World species, every European language  had to invent a new word for it.  To the French it is dindon (from de l'Inde, "from the Indies") and in  Spanish it is pavo, "peacock".   In England it was confused with the guinea-fowl, a native of Africa [see the Database entry for turkey].

We are not sure what you mean by its "original name".  As the various species of turkey are widely distributed throughout the Americas, hundreds of native American languages have their own word for it.  These may be as different from each other as are the European names.   For instance, the Lakota word is waglékša while the Taino is guanajo.  Humans are not indigenous to the New World, however, and so even the native American words are not the bird's "original name" — you'd have to ask a turkey for that.


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