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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.”


You’d be amazed, by the way, how much more productive you become simply by removing the batteries from the remote control.

Dear Word Detective:  With the latest Sarah Palin book, the term “barnstorming” has come up in the media more than once.  It got me to thinking about the phrase, which, when you stop to think about it, doesn’t make much sense.  I believe the phrase refers to stunt piloting in the early age of aviation — but why?  And even if it had something to do with flying through, over, under or around barns, how is it “storming”?  I know there’s some military terminology about “storming the walls” and the like, but it would make more sense if it were “swarming the walls.”  At least as I understand the phrase.  Did the “storming” part of these phrases evolve from “swarming.”  Or is it something else?  Could you make some sense of this? — Barney Johnson.

Sarah who?  Y’know, your question reminded me of how much saner I’ve felt ever since I completely stopped watching TV news last year, a move I heartily recommend.  I actually felt a little shiver of glee the other day when I realized that I’ve never heard Levi Johnson’s Johnston’s voice.  Seriously, the guy may sound like Elmer Fudd and I’d never know it.  I figure that one bit of blessed ignorance alone has saved me four or five million brain cells.

“Barnstorming” is indeed a strange word, one of those words that we see or hear so frequently that we rarely realize just how weird they really are.  A word such as “barnstorm” is especially vexing because the constituent parts are simple words in their own right, yet the combination doesn’t really make sense.  Who would want to “storm” a barn (aside from the Bovine Liberation Front, of course)?

An examination of the history of “barnstorming” clears things up a bit, at least as to the “barn” part.  The term “barnstorming” first appeared in the early 19th century, applied to theatrical troupes that toured in rural areas, often mounting their shows in, you guessed it, rented barns.  Such tours were commonly conducted in the summer, and often featured actors who would be engaged in established urban theaters during the rest of the year (“Miss Helen Bancroft, who recently played in this city, was announced as with a barn-storming company,” 1883).

The “storm” in “barnstorming” is a bit more difficult to untangle.  “Storm” as a verb means, logically, to act like a storm, either literally (rain, wind, etc.) or figuratively (to rage, rail, menace or attack).  This figurative use led to the military sense of “to storm” meaning “to attack and attempt to take a fortified position,” as well as more generally meaning “to capture or take over” (“A hundred swords Will storm his heart, Love’s feverous citadel,” Keats, 1820).  The use of “storm” in “barnstorm” is apparently a playful, slightly sardonic use of the term, referring to the need of the troupe to “conquer” one barn full of bumpkins after another in the course of their tour.  (By the way, my ownership of a tractor entitles me to use the word “bumpkin.”)

“Barnstorm” was so evocative of a rapid march through the boondocks that the term was quickly adopted to describe the tours mounted by politicians campaigning in the sticks in the late 1880s, who often held town meetings in those same barns.  The use of “barnstorming” in reference to traveling air shows dates to the 1920s, but the practice had absolutely nothing to do with barns.  Pilots flew from town to town, performing acrobatic maneuvers for paying audiences, and then flying on to another town, often later that same day.  It was this incessant “puddle-jumping” routine that, by analogy to those peripatetic acting troupes, gave these pilots the name “barnstormers.”


Pavarottis of the sea, in fact.

Dear Word Detective:  I’m just wondering where and when we began to use the word “whale” as a term to mean “to beat someone in rapid fashion” (e.g., “Tommy was whaling on Mike’s face”). — Donnie.

Met many whales?  Didn’t think so.  Vicious, savage creatures, those whales.  Look what they did to that nice Ahab fella.  That’s why I’d never be a missionary.  Call me Ishmael?  Fish-meal’s more like it.  Yeah, I know they’re not really fish, supposedly.  You know what else aren’t really fish?  Canada geese.  But they’re making a heck of a mess on my lawn, strutting around like they own the place, honking in some foreign language.  Canadian, I guess.  Won’t even let me get to the mailbox, and I’m expecting an important prize notification.  I may already be a winner!

But probably not.  Whales are, of course, actually very nice creatures with lovely singing voices.  Our modern English word “whale,” the Moby Dick kind, comes from an ancient  Germanic root, “khwal,” which also produced the modern German word for the critter, “walfisch” (meaning literally “whale-fish”).  The question, of course, is whether this not-fish sort of “whale” has any connection to the verb “to whale,” meaning “beat severely.”

“Whale” meaning “to beat, flog or thrash” first appeared in print in 1790, but, since that appearance was in a glossary of English provincial usage, we can assume that the word was in common usage in England long before that.  “Whale” has also, since the mid-19th century, been used figuratively to mean “to do something continuously and vehemently,” often meaning a verbal attack or a rant about something (“You remember that one that come round a spell ago a whalin’ away about human rights,” 1852).

The one possible connection between the literal “beat or flog” kind of “whale” and the “Thar she blows” leviathan is no reflection on the whale’s noble character.  It is possible that “whale” in the “beat” sense originally meant “to flog with a whalebone whip.”  The “whalebone” in such whips was actually what we now call “baleen,” flexible cartilage from the mouths of certain whale species.

More likely, however, is that “whale” in the “beat up” sense is a form of “wale,” a very old verb rarely seen today.  In Old English, the noun form of “wale” meant “ridge of earth or stone,” but by the 12th century it was also being used to mean “the marks or ridges on the skin left by a lash or rod.”  By the 15th century, the verb “to wale” meant to whip someone hard enough to cause welts or wounds (“O my blessed Saviour, was it not enough that thy sacred body was stripped of thy garments, and waled with bloudy stripes?” Bishop Joseph Hall, 1634).  This meaning of “wale” is so close to the current meaning of “whale” that a connection is almost certain.

The same “wale” as a noun, by the way, is still around in its original meaning of “ridge,” and is commonly used when we speak of “wide-wale corduroy” and the like.  But none of these “wales” have any connection to the country of Wales.  “Wales” was the Anglo-Saxon name for the country, in Old English “Wealas,” which meant “land of the foreigners.”  The Welsh people themselves know their land as Cymru.