Tag Archives: British Isles

On jeopardy and leopards

5 Jun

Someone used the phrase ‘double jeopardy’ in conversation with me this weekend, and it made me think what a strange word ‘jeopardy’ is. The only word I could think that resembled its spelling in English was ‘leopard’. The two make such an unlikely pairing that I had to investigate.

Much like my last entry about jet and jet, it appears to be coincidence, rather than design, that jeopardy and leopard share similar spelling. Jeopardy is the older word of the two – but not by much. Jeopardy dates in the English written record from around c.1200, whereas leopard appears only 150 years later in c.1350. Given the big cat is native to Africa and south Asia, it’s fascinating to see how its reputation had travelled all the way to the British Isles at a time when few would have even crossed the English Channel, let alone crossed continents.

In simple terms, jeopardy appears to derive from the old French version of ‘jeu parti’ – ‘divided or even game’. Its earliest usage, dating from 1200, referred to a chess problem, but is most clearly explained by this line from Chaucer’s The Book of the Duchess of 1369: “But god wolde I had ones or twyes Y-kond and knowe the Ieupardyes That kowde the Greke Pictagoras, I shulde haue pleyde the bet at ches.”

From its origins in the game of chess, jeopardy then took on a number of related meanings, all around the same time. One of the alternate definitions, first recorded in c. 1250, was the point in a game when the opportunity to win or lose hung in perfect balance – the turning point, as it were. You can see this in another of Chaucer’s usages of the word, this time from the later Troylis & Criseyde of 1374: For myn estat now lyth in Iupartye And eek myn emes lyf lyth in balaunce.

Chaucer also provides the original written English record of another definition of jeopardy – the sense of peril or danger, or impending loss. This is the most common meaning of the word in modern English. The same narrative poem, Troylis & Criseyde, provides the quote: For Troye is brought in swich a Iupartye That it to save is now no remedye.

The word also came to mean a daring exploit or dangerous mission, and a stratagem, although these meanings are lost to modern English.

The OED comments that it’s not particularly clear how or why the ‘t’ of ‘parti’ became ‘d’ in jeopardy– and it’s suggested that it may developed in line with the French verb ‘perdre’ (to lose).

But with leopard, the suggested etymology reflects the origins of the beast itself. It was thought the leopard was a cross between a lion ‘leo’ and a pard, an old name for a panther or large cat.  Pard first appears in Old English, in a translation of Alexander’s letters to Aristotle: … leon & beran & tigris & pardus & wulfas

Even in modern English, pard retains a usage in heraldry: The distinction between the pard and the panther is slight, being in whiteness of spots, and they both signify an original bearer of the arms who was not free-born. (The Oxford Guide to Heraldry, 1988.)  The word pard derives from the Greek via the Latin, which can still be seen in the leopard’s genus name of felis pardus.

The full word leopard is first recorded in English in c.1330, and again, Chaucer provides one of the earlier written records of the word, as taken here from The Monk’s Tale of about 1386: Leons, leopardes [v.r. lebardis, luperdes] and Beres.

The leopard’s gone on to lend its name to an exhaustive host of other spotted animals, vegetables and minerals, including, but not limited to: leopard-wood; leopard-tree; leopard-tortoise; leopard-shell; leopard spotted-goby; leopard seal; leopard moth; leopard mackerel; leopard lily; leopard frog and the camelopard.  Disappointingly, the camelopard is not a cross between a leopard and a camel (as I first thought), but is simply an old-fashioned name for a giraffe, with the leopard-part of the name owing a debt to the giraffe’s coat.

So, to answer the original question, perhaps the only thing a leopard has in common with jeopardy is that you find yourself in the latter if you meet the former!


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!