Sunday 17 July 2016

What's the point?

Have you ever reached a juncture in your life where you just sit and think “What's the point?” Well, here I am to tell you what the point is, as well as the puncture, the pounce, the punch and much more besides. Plenty of Latin roots have passed on their offspring to us to enrich our language, but few have been as fecund as pungere (pronounced rather like poon-gay-ray), which has provided English with a whole family of words, the most important of which came via the Normans. You could say that the Normans have poked, pricked and stabbed us repeatedly with pungere since they first held us at the point of a sword at Hastings.

Pungere in Latin indeed meant “pierce, stab, prick”, basically the action of a sharp object making a hole. This produced punctum, “pierced, pricked”, which gave French point, “dot, mark, place”, and pointe, “sharp end”. When these came into Middle English from Old French in the 12th C, the two words fused and over time took on the numerous meanings the word point has today, including sharp end, full stop, dot, position, stage, important feature, mark, score, indicate, aim and direct, to name a few. I think you'll take my point.

Two words come to us from Old French ponchon, “piercing tool”, itself from a Latin form punctio, with the same meaning. This produced puncheon in Middle English, which was reduced to punch, a word we still use in expressions like hole punch. The verb punch, “make a hole” came from the Old French ponchonner, and was also used to mean “thrust, prod, poke”, later being extended to “hit with the fist”. Coincidentally, the Latin pugnare, which gave us pugnacious, is related to pungere, and meant “fight with fists”, so the later development of punch into fist-fighting is parallel to the earlier Latin use of pugnare. Incidentally, the drink punch is unlikely to have any connection with poking, thrusting or punching, but is said to be from the Hindi word for five, denoting the original number of ingredients. However, after a few glasses of punch, I'm sure a few other punches might ensue in the wrong circumstances.

An alternative meaning of Old French ponchon was “lance, javelin, spine”, and this produced Middle English pownse, which came to refer to the claws of a bird of prey. Even today in falconry, the front claws of a falcon are known as pounces because they pierce the body of the prey. However, over time, the action of the hunter in swooping on the prey changed the meaning of pounce from "pierce" to "seize with claws" and finally to "jump on", which is the meaning we use now.

A later borrowing in the 14th C from Middle French into Middle English was poignant, “stinging”, from the verb poindre, “prick, sting”. Originally, poignant referred to both physical and mental stinging and pain, especially sharp tastes, but over time it became reserved for feelings and other abstract ideas.

All of the above words were mediated by their passage through Old and Middle French before they reached Middle English, but words were constantly borrowed directly from Latin as well, which gives us some interesting parallel derivations alongside the French ones. Two such words, punctual from punctualis, "on point", and puncture, from punctura, "pricking", arrived in the 14th C direct from Medieval Latin. Being on point has become associated with time, hence punctual. On the other hand, getting a prick, or a puncture, in your car tyre might well affect your punctuality.

Rather later, in the 16th C, after English took in poignant, it borrowed essentially the same word directly from Latin in the form of pungent. However, this time although the pricking was originally associated with feelings, it gradually came to refer to the pricking of the nasal passages and the tongue. We could easily have ended up with pungent songs and poignant smells had the words taken different paths. Another thing we got from Latin around this time was punctuation, “marking with points”, to the eternal displeasure of schoolchildren everywhere. One final borrowing from around the same time is punctilious from Italian pontiglioso, “on point”, altered from the Italian to look as if it came directly from Latin.

So, we can see that although English started off at the sharp end of the Norman sword, it has a pointed history, punctuated by the borrowing of many different words, some pungent, many poignant, but all carrying a punch as they make their point