Gloom and doom r us.
Dear Word Detective: My friends and I were wondering, morbid as it may be, where the word “pallbearer” came from. I remember being eight at my first funeral and thinking they’d misspelled the word “pole,” though I’m sure this is not correct. My friends have never seen the Word Detective at work before, so don’t fail me — I know you can do it! — Sarah.
Thanks for the vote of confidence. But you do realize that I, uh, get to pick the questions I answer, right? Shocking, I know. But the alternative is far worse. Back when I was young and masochistic, I used to occasionally appear on radio call-in shows where the host would invite listeners to ask about any word that wandered into their addled little heads. There are approximately 600,000 words in English, and that’s not even counting phrases and idioms. Guess how many origins of those words and phrases I happen to know off the top of my own addled little head, especially while I’m talking to a drive-time shock-jock in Des Moines at 7 am. Right. Welcome to Mortification City.
Speaking of mortification, that is a pretty morbid question you’ve come up with, but an interesting one as well. The “pallbearers” at a funeral, of course, are the people, often friends and family of the deceased, who carry the casket (or, in some cases, just walk alongside it). One might assume that the “pall” in “pallbearer” is some archaic word for “casket,” or, as you noted, perhaps a form of “pole.” But “pallbearer,” which first appeared in print in 1707, is actually just one of the uses to which the very interesting word “pall” has been put.
The root of “pall” is the Latin word “pallium,” which means “cloak,” and in Ancient Greece and Rome “pallium” referred to a fairly simple garment, more humble than the Roman toga, for instance. When “pall” first appeared in Old English, however, it was used to mean fine fabric or a robe or cloak made from fine fabric, often the sort of robe a monarch or high religious official would wear. In such cases the “pall” was frequently made of purple velvet.
During the same period, “pall” was also used to mean a piece of fine cloth used as a covering or ornament, especially a covering for the altar in a Christian church. By about 1400, “pall” was being used to mean the cloth, again often purple velvet, placed over a casket at a funeral. During a funeral procession at that time, it was customary for one group of people (the “casket-bearers”) to carry the coffin itself, and another group, the “pallbearers,” to hold the pall over the coffin. The tradition of having separate “pallbearers” eventually largely faded away, and the term was thereafter applied to the group actually carrying the coffin, or, in cases where the coffin rides on a carriage or cart, to whoever accompanies the coffin in the procession.
“Pall” had also been used in the 15th century in a neutral figurative sense to mean something that covers or conceals as a cloak or drape would. But the use of “pall” to mean “coffin covering” led to the metaphorical use of “pall” to mean “an atmosphere of gloom,” a sense we use today when we say that something “casts a pall” (“Bob’s arrest for aggravated mopery cast a pall over his election as Senator”).
Incidentally, while we’re on the subject of cloth, “pall” has another interesting relative — “tarpaulin.” The humble “tarp” we know today as a heavy plastic sheet used to protect damaged roofs, etc., was originally made from heavy cloth impregnated with tar to make it waterproof. The “paul” in “tarpaulin” is simply a variant of “pall.”