Tag Archives: Robin Hood

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!


‘Of that ilk’

19 Jan
An antique map of England and Wales by John Ca...

Image via Wikipedia

I heard the phrase ‘of that ilk’ used over the Christmas period to describe
a landed family.  My hazy memory suggests it was used about the Montcrieffs, a
Scottish family.  As they happen to live in a place called Montcrieff,
rather than describe them as the ‘Montcrieffs of Montcrieff’, we refer to
them as ‘Montcrieff of that ilk’.

It’s a curious little phrase and my even more hazy memory of the
Anglo-Saxon I studied at university made me think that it was a very old
phrase indeed.

The good news is that my memory did me proud (an increasingly rare

The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, the written records of what happened in every
year, first use the word ‘ilk’ (or ilce as it’s written) in conjunction
with the year 755.  Unfortunately, I can’t write the phrase in full as WordPress
can’t replicate the Anglo-Saxon alphabet!

The word simply means the ‘same’ or ‘identical’ – so you see a lot of
phrases in Anglo-Saxon such as ‘on this ilke day’ (on the same day).   This
usage continued in Middle English – a Caxton translation of de Voragine’s
Golden Legende from 1483 cites “That the ylke god shold be blessyd.”

But the usage of ‘ilk’ did change over time.  The sense of ‘same’ or
‘identical’ was gradually lost.  One of the earlier related meanings – ‘at
that exact moment’ – did continue until at least the 17th century; the last
citation comes from a Robin Hood tale of c. 1650: “Downe she came in that

The usage quoted in my first paragraph – “the Montcrieffs of that ilk” – is
last quoted in the OED in 1860 –  “A canon and two choristers sent from St.
George’s to the hospital of that ilk”, although me hearing it over
Christmas suggests it has lasted until at least the 21st century.

But it’s another usage of ‘ilk’ that seems to have survived most strongly
into the present day, a usage that OED describes as ‘erroneous’.

It seems that people misunderstood the meaning of ‘Montcrieffs of that
ilk’, and extrapolated ‘ilk’ to mean ‘type’ or ‘sort’.

Here we see the phrase used in this context in 1845: “Mr. Hume, or Mr.
Roebuck, or any member of that ilk” and again in 1973, “One doesn’t like or
dislike a fellow of that ilk.‥ He was a kind of barrow boy in a shop.”

It’s a fascinating 1,200 year long journey for what was an extremely commonplace, ordinary word, but now seems to be dropping out of usage.