At The Wording Desk

Bill Casselman

The Origin of Words presented in a witty, funny mode unlike most etymological delvings

To Pronk, To Stott, To Saltate:

Rare Verbs of Leaping


The rodeo corral of leaping verbs in English is of modest girth but encloses lively word broncos. To pronk, to stott, to caracole and to saltate have a prancing splendour worth enjoying.
To pronk
Pronk stems from an Afrikaans verb, borrowed from the South African riding vocabulary of Boers. It began leaping into English sentences at the end of the nineteenth century. The Dutch verb pronken means ‘to show off, to strut one’s stuff. In Dutch a pronker is a braggart or stuck-up jerk. Also, in Afrikaans, the Boer plural noun of pronk is pronken.

Our English noun prank ‘trick’ may have arisen from the same root. The earliest meaning in English of the verb to prank up is ‘to dress up and strut about.’ In Middle Dutch proncken meant ‘to boast.’ In seventeenth-century German prunken meant ‘to show off.’ Germanic variants like pronken, prangen and brangan are related. English prank and prink are less certain relatives.

Springbok (Afrikaans ‘jumping buck’) and other slender antelopes pronk as a form of antic display. They jump up into the air, back arched, springing up on all four legs which are held straight. Is there a happier take-off than a svelte gazelle pronking into a summer sky? In high mountain pastures of the Andes, llamas leap and alpacas pronk. Cavorting vicuñas litter the meadowscape. All these saltatory shenanigans lead us to our next obscure verb of leaping. Saltatory means ‘moving in leaps and bounds.’

To Saltate
To saltate is to leap or jump. Saltatus is the Latin root. Saltatus is the past participial adjective of the verb saltare ‘to dance,’ which in that verb suggests one early form of Roman dancing was merely rhythmic leaping. Saltare in its verbal form is a frequentative, reduced from its original Latin form, *salitare, from salire ‘to leap.’

Frequentative verbal suffixes are added to simple Latin verb stems to imply frequency of the action described by the simple verb. In other words, the prime meaning of saltare is ‘to leap many times.’ This quite probably described some hopping dance of early Rome.

Flitting Flies
I’ll add one more example of a frequentative Latin verb form, because it shows up in an English medical term. Volare in Latin means ‘to fly.’ Volitare is its frequentative, meaning ‘to repeat a flying action many times,’ and so, naturally, the ancient Romans used the verb volitare to describe the flight of bats ‘to flit’ or the flapping of butterfly wings ‘to flitter.’

In ophthalmology, floating imperfections in the vitreous humour of the human eyeball are formally termed muscae volitantes ‘flitting houseflies.’ Also called eye floaters, consisting of bits of cellular debris that jerk about oddly if you blink or move your eyeball. You’ve seen them in your own field of vision, even if you could not name them. But now you can, so look them up in an online medical dictionary to find muscae volitantes.

Somersault
Saltare was borrowed into all of the Romance languages derived from Latin. From French, English borrowed and did a somersault, an acrobat’s head-over-heels leap, a tumbler’s pitchpoll. Somersault is close to the Old French form sombresault < sobresault < sobresaut Provençal < sobresalto Spanish < supra Latin ‘above’ + saltus ‘a leap.’ The Italian phrase for somersault is much more honest about the dangers of such a jump. Italians call the somersault salto mortale

Sault Ste. Marie, Ontario
Both the United States and Canada have a city named Sault Ste. Marie. Sault is 17th-century French spelling of le saut Modern French ‘waterfalls.’ In the 18th century sault could mean ‘rapids.’ In both cases, it refers to places where water leaps. When Jesuit missionaries founded a mission nearby, they named the leaping rapids after the Virgin Mary. Modern French would probably use la chute or les chutes to name rapids in a river. Saut à la corde is kids skipping rope. To take a leap in the dark in French is faire un saut dans l’inconnu. Italian has a lively, hopping and skipping dance called the saltarello ‘little leap.’

This saltare root hides in many common English words and is worth searching out some rainy day when a dictionary and a fireplace beckon you to a window seat. Check the origins of words like assault, desultory, result, exultant, sauté (make that cooking fat leap up!), salacious, military salient, resile and the delicious saltimbocca, Italian ‘jump into your mouth.’

To Stott
In northern England and Scotland this trig little verb means to bounce off, to spring up, to jump, to rebound. The secondary verbal use of stott describes moving with a jumping or springing step, to bound along. To stott may be related to a Teutonic root that shows up in modern German stossen where the *stoss root signifies ‘punch’ or ‘kick’ and in Dutch where stuiten is ‘to rebound, to bounce.’ Possibly influenced by the Dutch form is a rarer English dialect verb, to stoit ‘to bounce’ or, said of certain fish like pilchards ‘to leap above the surface of the water.’ It sounds like the start of a feisty provincial exclamation which I am going to make up: By the stoitin’ pilchards!

To Capriole
From Italian capriola ‘a young goat, a fawn’ comes this verb used in horsemanship to name a certain high leap in equitation made without going forward. In form, the word is the diminutive of capra ‘she-goat.’ If you are skimming over the waves to the Isle of Capri you are approaching what was simply in old Italian the island of “goats.” Movie director Frank Capra possibly had a founding ancestor of his family who was a goatherd. A much more common short form of this verb and noun became popular in English. If you caper about, you are leaping and jumping like a goat. A caper is a little trick such as a sneaky goat might play.

To Caracole
This is another verb describing a movement in equestrian skill, a half-turn or wheel to the right or left. This elegant verb takes it name from spiral shells like periwinkles. Its line of descent looks like this: caracol French < caracollo Italian ‘wheeling of a horse’ < caracol Spanish ‘snail, periwinkle.’ Beyond Spanish, the derivation is shrouded in the sea-fog of history.


And so, as tendrils of moist mist embrace the parapets of stately Casselman manor on this rainy afternoon, I’m off to mull some wine and sip surcease from a warmed goblet. Warning: Later there may be leaping.



Bill Casselman,

March 25, 2016

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