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The Scrivener: Cattle In A Rank Old Pound

...The ancient English village where I was born had a winding street called Pinfold Lane (there were no cattle, horses or sheep there when I was a boy, and it didn't smell.)...

Brian Barratt is our guide on another fascinating journey through time, tracking down the changes in the meanings of words.

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Homonyms: Words which have several meanings, 5

The old British currency consisted of pounds, shillings and pence. They were not referred to a p.s. & p. but were abbreviated as £.s.d,, which means L.s.d. This dates back to the times when the ancient Romans invaded and settled in Britain. The initial L stands for the Latin word libra, the unit of currency which was later called the pound.

As a unit of weight, pound has been in English since the days of Old English, when it was pund. Assigning a value to a weight, it was the official unit in weighing silver. It has been used as a unit of currency for about 1,000 years. In about the year 1200, the monk Layamon used the word in his mythological history of Britain, Brüt, when he wrote of žreo žusend punden, three thousand pounds. (That odd letter is an old form of "th".)

So how can units of weight and money also refer to a lost dogs' home? They don't. That use of the word did not emerge until about the 1400s. It might have been borrowed from the first part of an Old English word, pundfold. That was a place for keeping stray cattle, horses and sheep; probably a fairly smelly place, too. It later became pinfold. In Middle English, a pinfold was an enclosure field. The ancient English village where I was born had a winding street called Pinfold Lane (there were no cattle, horses or sheep there when I was a boy, and it didn't smell.).

Meanwhile, Old English had a verb punian, which meant to break down, crush, pulverise. You can see straight away where another meaning of pound came from — if you pound something or someone, you administer a real beating! Figurative uses such as pounding the pavement and pounding the keyboard were coined much later.

William Shakespeare, with his usual linguistic versatility, uses the word pound over 40 times in his plays, mainly in the context of money but also with the other meanings:

PRINCE. Nay, but hark you, Francis. For the sugar thou gavest me — 'twas a pennyworth, wast not?
FRAN. O Lord! I would it had been two!
PRINCE. I will give thee for it a thousand pound. Ask me when thou wilt, and, thou shalt have it
(Henry IV Part 1.)

The pound of flesh which I demand of him
Is dearly bought, 'tis mine, and I will have it.
(The Merchant of Venice.)
We'll break our walls,
Rather than they shall pound us up
In Two Gentlemen of Verona the eclectic Mr Shakespeare even creates a pun with two uses of the word:
PROTEUS. Nay, in that you are astray: 'twere best [to] pound you.
SPEED. Nay, sir, less than a pound shall serve me for carrying your letter.
PROTEUS. You mistake; I mean the pound — a pinfold.
SPEED. From a pound to a pin? Fold it over and over,
'Tis threefold too little for carrying a letter to your lover.

Now let's turn to another versatile word which Shakespeare used to denote foul-smelling, festering, outlandish, serious, lustful, overflowing, violent, strong. Yes, he used the same word for all of them. He also used it as a verb meaning "to arrange in rows". Have you guessed what it is? Yes, it is...

...Rank. In Old English, ranc meant straight and, later on, erect, proud, haughty. It could also mean "growing vigorously". In the wonderful way that words adopt new meanings when they are used over the centuries, this also came to imply over-abundant, which led to gross and thence to disgusting.

The other main meaning of rank as a row, and the verb to rank meaning to put in rows or positions, came from a different origin which is easier to follow. It was borrowed from Old French ranc (same spelling, different word!) which is also related historically to our words range and ring. In modern French, rang means row, line, rank, and in modern German Rang means rank, station, position.

Charles Dickens uses rank not only to designate place in society, as in Such power and patronage: such relatives of influence and rank, but also has rank grass and cabbages leaves in his graphic descriptions, e.g:
In A Christmas Carol:
And now, without a word of warning from the Ghost, they stood upon a bleak and desert moor, where monstrous masses of rude stone were cast about, as though it were the burial-place of giants; and water spread itself wheresoever it listed, or would have done so, but for the frost that held it prisoner; and nothing grew but moss and furze, and coarse rank grass

And in David Copperfield:
The inhabitants appeared to have a propensity to throw any little trifles they were not in want of, into the road: which not only made it rank and sloppy, but untidy too, on account of the cabbage-leaves.

Aha, you say, so that's how we get rankle, to fester or cause pain, and rancid, meaning tasting or smelling horrible. Sorry, no. These come from completely different origins. Rankle entered English in the 1500s, having had a circuitous route from Latin and Old French words which originally referred to the pain of a snake's, or dragon's, bite. Rancid started as Latin rancidus, stinking, and came into English in the 1600s via French rancide.

This compilation © Copyright Brian Barratt 2010


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