Tag Archives: David Crystal

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!

The fly in the ointment

23 Jan
Titlepage and dedication from a 1612-1613 King...

Image via Wikipedia

In October last year, I played the birthday card and persuaded my husband to give up his Friday night to accompany me to the ‘Warwick Words’ festival to see David Crystal talk on the King James Bible.

It was an evening of warmth, wit and insight – much like the many brilliant books David Crystal has written.   He’s a fantastic presenter, and even my husband, who has no particular interest in the English language or the King James Bible (the subject of the talk), thoroughly enjoyed the session.

In his talk, David debunked some of the myths around the King James Bible – that it is the ‘DNA’ of our English language.  The influence of the King James Bible, he argued, is not in the grammar, syntax, vocabulary or spelling of English.  Instead, he claims that where it is influential is in the use of idiom – ‘the fly in the ointment’, ‘am I my brother’s keeper?’, ‘a man after my own heart’, a ‘two-edged sword’, ‘pearls before swine’ and many, many more.

Here’s a list of those idioms from phrases.org.uk

But as David went on to explain, there are surprisingly few idioms truly original to the King James Bible.  Many had actually appeared in earlier versions of the Bible, and I think (and I may have misremembered) that David counted only 18 idioms that could first be traced to the King James version.

There’s a great interview with David on icons.org.uk (and it’s great to see him on this site as he is one of my icons!)

David’s also written an article for the Oxford English Dictionary site on this topic.

Finally, here’s David’s book Begat on the King James Bible.  I haven’t read it – but if it’s like any of the many other books of his I have read, it’s bound to be a delight.