Can you pummel a pommel horse?

5 Apr

I was watching the recent Robin Hood with Russell Crowe (he of the accent that wanders between several parts of the British Isles) – and during a fight scene, the word ‘pummelling’ popped into my head.

It’s a great sounding word, isn’t it?  It sounds far too nice to mean punching or pounding someone.  I’ve read in David Crystal’s Words Words Words that when you ask English speakers for their favourite sounding words, the combination of M + vowel + L is always popular – examples being mellifluous or the girl’s name Melanie.

(As an aside, I recently learned the word to describe pleasant-sounding words is Euphonious, from the Greek euphonos meaning ‘sweet-voiced’)

Is pummelling also related to a pommel horse?  A pommel horse is no friend of mine – I hated gymnastics at school – but the words sound very similar, and I can sort of see how a gymnastics routine might ‘pummel’ the horse.

But it was the pommelling, rather than the pummelling, that came first.  It’s first recorded in English as a verb in 1530: “I pomell, I beate one aboute the eares”   The ‘pummel’ variant was only a few years behind, as this 1548 quote shows: “Thei turne him cleane out of his owne doores, and pumble hym about the pate.”

But the word didn’t start life as a verb.  The first recorded usage of pommel is as a noun in about 1300, and refers to the round knob on top of a flagpole or dome.  Not long after in 1330, it was recorded as meaning the rounded knob on the end of a sword handle:  “On þe pomel was ywrite: ‘Icham yhot Estalibore.’”

From these two meanings, pommel came to mean ‘a rounded object’ – and from there it seems, we started to use it to refer to the rounded dome at the front of a horse’s saddle.  See this usage from Merlin in c. 1500: “Theire swerdes hangynge at the pomell of theire sadeles be-fore.”

It was this saddle-based sense of ‘pommel’ that led on to pommel horse – the pommels being the handles the gymnast uses to hang on to the vaulting horse, just as riders occasionally use a pommel to hang on to the saddle!   This meaning doesn’t appear until the early 20th century.

But the sense of ‘pummel’ as meaning to strike repeatedly comes from the round thing at the end-of-the-sword pommel – people obviously used to use their pommels to beat other people, and the noun become a verb.

So to answer my own question, yes, you can pummel a pommel horse!

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One Response to “Can you pummel a pommel horse?”

  1. Piper Grecco January 20, 2016 at 9:17 pm #

    Nice Posting. I will come back often!

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