Boat Words # 5
of punts, pontoons & pontiffs
common parts of a punt named
A punt is a small, flat-bottomed river boat, an inland craft designed to take advantage of its shallow draft. Nowadays a punt is pushed by a long pole thrust against the water’s bottom. Its clear etymon is classical Latin ponto, pontonis ‘keel-less ferry,’ from which also descends pontoon, originally flat-bottomed boats tied together to effect a kind of ramshackle bridge, its later semantic expansions including hollow floats on the bottom of seaplanes enabling them to land on water and take off from water.
Ponto’s definite relationship with the classical Latin word for bridge, pons, pontis is thus evident. It has been pointed out to me that I should explain the double citational form of some Latin nouns. The nominative case, pons, is sufficient in etymology, unless one is discussing later forms that used the stem pont-, in which case the genitive case is given too, pontis, since the genitive form is always based on the full stem, unlike the nominative case.
From a perspective more ancient than classical Latin, namely Proto-Indo-European, Latin pons is perhaps cognate with Homeric Greek πόντος pontos ‘the sea,’ Sanskrit पथिन् páthin ‘way, path, road,’ all related to the PIE stem *pent- ‘path.’ It is not a mystery why a root meaning ‘pathway’ could expand its semantic breadth to mean ‘the sea’ for Greeks, a seafaring people such as the horse-riding northern Dorians became once they had invaded and settled the Hellenic mainland and islands. Pontos appears in perhaps the best known Homeric epithet, ‘on the wine-dark sea,’ ἐπὶ οἴνοπα πόντον epi oinopa ponton. It helped that one of the vast troop of pre-Olympian sea-gods was named Pontos, long before the word became a synonym for the Mediterranean Sea.
One of the familiar adjectives naming matters concerning the Roman Catholic Pope is pontifical, from an early papal title, Pontifex. That’s classical Latin for bridge-builder: pons, pontis ‘bridge’ + -fex ‘builder, maker’ from the Latin verb facere ‘to do, to make, to build.’ Rome began as tiny hamlets on both sides of the River Tiber. Can we imagine a distant time when the official who knew how to build and maintain bridges across the Tiber might assume a status of almost religious importance to villagers as Pontifex Maximus ‘the chief bridge-builder’? Of course we can. Grabbing that title to add to the many enjoyed by Roman Catholic popes seems only par for the Vatican, so-to-speak.
Now let us cross onward to future derivations, across the bobbling, wobbling foothold of Destiny’s tippy pontoon, the sea-saw of Fate, the capricious teeter-totter of possibly serendipitous happenstance.
June 19, 2016,
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