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November 09, 2018  |  Friday words #146  |  1890 hit(s)

You are undoubtedly familiar with the expression "to blow [or toot] one's own horn." Suppose that you wanted to create a noun that captured the meaning of that expression: "to talk about one's own accomplishments." There's boasting, of course, but that has a more negative connotation than we want, perhaps, as is true for bragging and crowing.

The lexicographer Peter Gilliver might have solved this issue for us. In 2016, he published a book about the history of the Oxford English Dictionary (a.k.a. the OED, much cited here in Friday words). As he describes in a forum thread, he spontaneously invented the word autotrombation as an email subject line. He likes the word well enough that he's continued using it:

What's charming about the word is how it reduces "blow one's own horn" down to a single word. Auto captures "one's own," and trombation is a made-up verb based on the root that gave us trumpet and trombone (i.e., a root meaning "horn").

However, there is one problem, namely that trombate, the nominal but invented source for trombation, is a vulgar word in Italian. (Definitely don't search for this word while you're at work.) That issue aside, though, it's a word that deserves more widespread use.

On to origins. This week I attended a funeral and unexpectedly found myself acting as a pallbearer. Later on I got to wondering about the word. Bearer, sure, that's "one who bears." But what does pall mean?

It's an interesting case of transference. Pall is cloth, or a piece of cloth. It comes from a Latin word pallium, which meant a cover or cloak. In the church, the Latin word took on a more specialized meaning; for example, in the Catholic church, archbishops wear (wore?) a pallium.

In English, the word pall meant both a fine robe and a cloth spread over the altar or used in some other ceremonial way. One of those ways was a cloth laid over a coffin. Thus a pall-bearer was originally someone who held the edge of a cloth in a funeral procession. Here's a great example from 1834 that shows this meaning: "In addition to the six persons who supported the bier..there walked, on either side of it, the three others who were selected for the office of pall-bearers."

From the cloth, we transferred the meaning to the coffin itself. These days, a pallbearer is someone who carries or escorts the coffin. There might or might not be any cloth involved, despite the origins of the term.

In case you're curious, the word pall in an expression like "a pall of gloom descended" or "it cast a pall" is the same word. Covering something with a cloth is a good metaphor for a dark mood coming over people.

As an aside, the funeral was not at all gloomy.

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