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The Scrivener: All Sorts Of Trunks

...Trunks for luggage. Trunks of trees. And now trunks on elephants. And there's yet another trunk which plays a vital role in the story of Kim...

Brian Barratt delves into history while considering the multiple meanings of the word "trunk''.

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Homonyms: Words which have several meanings, 6

In our house in England, in the 1940s, there was a large trunk in the front bedroom. It contained a wonderful assortment of old clothes which children could use in "dressing up" games. It was just the sort of trunk which a character in Rudyard Kipling's novel Kim referred to when he said:

"I have brought with me all that I need on the Road. My trunk has gone up to Lurgan Sahib's"

Charles Dickens wrote of this kind of trunk in one of the books of my childhood, A Christmas Carol:

Master Scrooge's trunk being by this time tied on to the top of the chaise, the children bade the school-master good-bye right willingly; and getting into it, drove gaily down the garden-sweep: the quick wheels dashing the hoar-frost and snow from off the dark leaves of the evergreens like spray.

My father was keen on gardening. We had all sorts of trees in our back garden— apple, plum, damson, hazel nut, pear, you name it. And, would you believe, each tree had a trunk. A trunk in the bedroom and lots of them in the garden! Rudyard Kipling wrote about those, too:

Then he staggered off, singing love-songs of Lower Bengal, and collapsed upon a wet tree-trunk.

Another of the books of my childhood was The Jungle Book by Rudyard Kipling. Here's a passage from it:

The elephant turned, without a sound, took three strides back to the boy in the moonlight, put down his trunk, swung him up to his neck, and almost before Little Toomai had settled his knees, slipped into the forest.

Trunks for luggage. Trunks of trees. And now trunks on elephants. And there's yet another trunk which plays a vital role in the story of Kim:

A little later a marriage procession would strike into the Grand Trunk with music and shoutings, and a smell of marigold and jasmine stronger even than the reek of the dust. One could see the bride's litter, a blur of red and tinsel, staggering through the haze, while the bridegroom's bewreathed pony turned aside to snatch a mouthful from a passing fodder-cart.

Sometimes known simply as the Great Trunk Road, or simply the Trunk, it was a highway built in the days of the British raj. It stretched from Peshawar, in what is now Pakistan, all the way to the Indian city of Kolkatta, which was called Calcutta in Kipling's day.

In the 1940s we had another sort of trunk, which I could not really understand. If we wanted to make a long-distance phone call (on a neighbour's telephone because we couldn't afford one for ourselves), it was a trunk call. So, in a mysterious way, there was also some sort of trunk in the telephone system. And it had a much easier name than the Icelandic simasamtal milli bæja, telephone call between towns!

We didn't use the word "pants" to describe what boys wore beneath their trousers. I seem to remember that it was considered to be a rather rude word. We wore trunks, instead. And if we went swimming, we wore swimming trunks. That was rather odd, because the part of the body known as the torso was also called the trunk.

There you are, that's over half a dozen uses of the same word. At this stage, perhaps we should have a look at their history. It's a very old word, coming into English in the 12th century from the Old French word tronc which came from Latin truncus. You can see straight away that our word truncate comes from the same origins.

It meant, in effect, the main part of something or, as one dictionary puts it, the main part of something with its protruding parts torn off. From that, without the need to tear anything off, we can see that a tree trunk and a human trunk have something in common: they are the main parts from which the limbs project or protrude. In Shakespeare's time, a corpse could also be called a trunk, with or without its arms and legs.

Well before Shakespeare's time, a trunk was also a wooden chest or box. It's thought that this term arose from the fact that a trunk was made from or hewn out of wood from a tree trunk. The idea of a container for luggage was probably used by the 1920s to designate the trunk of a car in the USA, which is called the boot in Britain and Australia.

Scholars are not quite sure why an elephant's proboscis came to be called a trunk, perhaps commencing in the mid-1500s. It might have arisen from some confusion with the word "trump". The 1811 Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue reveals a usage arising from reference to the elephant. A trunk was a nose. To shove a trunk meant to introduce oneself unmasked into any place or company. "Trunk-maker like" meant making more noise than work.

It's easy to see why some phone calls were called trunk calls. Nothing to do with elephants trumpeting, but they were calls between two main telephone exchanges — a trunk call has something in common with a trunk road as a major route.

Trunks as underpants comes from the old term trunk-hose, hose for the trunk. Dr Johnson defined them in his great dictionary (1755) as "large breeches formerly worn". They obviously shrank over the next two centuries.

In the field of homonyms, trunk must surely be one of the most fascinating words.

This compilation © Copyright Brian Barratt 2010


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