Fast Mash

  • Plumb derives from Latin, plumbum, which meant “lead,” possibly from an ancient Iberian language, reflecting the source of lead for Romans and Greeks
  • In construction, a plumb is a string fixed with a weight, often made out of lead, and was used as a reference for vertical lines; thus, out of plumb, among other expressions
  • Nautically, a similar technology measured the depth of water; thus, plumbing the depths 
  •  plumber was originally a worker in lead and later referred to those who work with plumbing pipes, originally made out of lead 
  • Plunge and plummet are related

My mind’s been in the gutter. In the plumbing, more accurately. Well, technically, it’s my friend’s mine that’s gone cloacal. But I guess I started it. Prompted by my recent nautical-metrical streak, he requested plumb, adding: “I shudder to think of the implications that etymology may have for toilet repair professionals.” You asked for it, Shane. It’s actually pretty interesting.


Plumb has many pipes. Today, perhaps we know it best as plumbing the depths, both figuratively and literally. And there’s a good reason we say that. On the sea, a plumb–also called a plummet–comprises a rope with a weight fixed to one end. It, well, plumbs the depths of the water. In fathoms, I suspect.

On land, a plumb–or a plumb line or plumb-bob–similarly comprised some string with a weight. It is a tool used in the building crafts as a vertical reference. Just as a level establishes a horizontal plane, so a plumb establishes the vertical or the perpendicular. The technology, apparently, dates back to ancient Egypt.

Here’s a basic demonstration of how the technology works from Denys Stocks’ Experiments in Egyptian ArchaeologyIt also doubles a good refresher in gravity:

early plumb-bob

If you ever tinkered around in your grandfather’s garage or got stuck in an antique mall with your grandmother, you might recognize the plumb-bob in its more recent, pointed form:

so THAT’s what those thing are, epiphany courtesy of

So, when something’s out of plumbIt’s not exactly vertical. When something’s plumb in the middle? It’s there, downright and square. When a person shows a lot of aplomb, they are assured, steadfast. That comes from the French à plomb, “to the plumb line” or “according to the plummet”: poised, straight, and balanced.

Now, these plumbs were frequently made out of lead, whose Latin word was plumbum. Thus the element’s chemical symbol, Pb. (Speaking of Roman lead, some ancient wines were even made by boiling grapes in lead pots, which added a sweetness to the vintage. Indeed, “sugar of lead” is another name for lead acetate.)

Latin’s plumbum could also refer to “rulers” for drawing vertical lines and the pencils used to draw them. And it could refer to pipes. Yes, plumbing pipes.


Did you catch this in the New York Times last Friday? It was a correction, originally appearing on Friday, September 27 in section A2:

An obituary on Sept. 20 about Hiroshi Yamauchi, the longtime president of Nintendo, included a quotation from a 1988 New York Times article that inaccurately described the Nintendo video game Super Mario Bros. 2. The brothers Mario and Luigi, who appear in this and other Nintendo games, are plumbers, not janitors.

Sorry, Mario.

But why are plumbers called so, anyways?

The Latin plumbum could refer to pipes because the Romans did use the malleable and durable metal in many of its water pipes. (The effects of lead poisoning in ancient Roman, from what I can tell, have been overstated, however.) Many of these pipes are famous for their inscriptions, bearing the names of the manufacturer, owner, and sometimes even the emperor himself, designed to prevent theft:

Governor Agricola’s pipe, courtesy of the Roman Britain Organisation

Originally, then, a plumber was a lead worker and plumbing was leadwork. The OED first attests the word in a compound, plumber house, in 1385, in the form of Plomberhous. Not too much later, a plumber came to signify “a person who fits or repairs the pipes (originally made of lead), fittings, and other apparatus relating to the water supply, sanitation, heating, etc., for a building” (OED).

But just in case you ever thought the OED was too starchy, it does have an entry for “plumber’s butt” and “plumber’s crack” (as well as Britain’s related “builder’s bum”). Yes, somebody had to–or got to, depending on how you want to look at it–define “plumber’s crack” as:

…the top of the buttocks and the cleft between them, as revealed when a person bends over or crouches down, or by low-cut or ill-fitting trousers

And the definitive record of the English language attests “plumber’s butt” in the San Francisco Chronicle in 1990.

Warp Zone

Indeed, plumb enjoys a colorful life: In jazz slang, plumbing once referred to trumpets and trombones. In political jargon, plumbing refers to plugging up government leaks, thanks especially to Watergate, although the metaphor is much older. More jocularly, one’s plumbing can refer to what why we, well, need plumbing. And plumbum oscillans? It’s mock Latin, according to Partridge’s Slangfor “lead-swinging,” US naval officers’ playful term for “malingering” or “blatantly idling.” That’s my kind of slang: nerdy and Latinate.

And we have plunging neckline (attested, 1949) and take the plunge (1835). Or plummeting stock markets. (The sense of “falling rapidly” appears in the 1930s, probably from aviators). These, too, ultimately drain to plumbum.

So, can we plumb Latin’s plumb any deeper?

There is no certain origin for Latin’s plumbum. It might come from an ancient Iberian language; the OED notes that “lead came to the Greeks and Romans from Spain.” Shipley adds that “lead was mined in Spain as early as 2000 B.C.” And it’s probably related to Ancient Greek’s word for “lead,” μόλυβδος, or molybdos. Word-wise, that’s about as deep as this one sinks, far as I can tell.

But the metaphor of the plumb seems nearly as old as the technology itself. The Book of Amos in the Old Testament, which scholars believe was composed some time between the 8th and 6th centuries BC, features some rather dire consequences for being out of plumb with God. According to the “Vision of the Plummet,” Amos relates:

Then the Lord God showed me this: he was standing by a wall, plummet in hand. The Lord asked me, “What do you see, Amos?” And when I answered, “A plummet,” the Lord said:

“See, I will lay the plummet in the midst of my people Israel; I will forgive them no longer. The high places of Isaac shall be laid waste, and the sanctuaries of Israel made desolate; I will attack the house of Jeroboam with the sword.”

Um, ancient Israelites, I suppose the least of your worries is about how dense this plumb metaphor actually is.

Anyways, I speak often of etymology as “going down the rabbit hole.” But for those who grew up in the ’80s, perhaps we could swap out Lewis Carroll for Super Mario Bros. Sometimes a good word origin is like a “warp zone,” taking us to different worlds, one improbable pipe at a time.

duh-duh-duh duh-duh, courtesy of

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bodies of water (part I of II)

Last post, ocean took us into its cosmological waters. In this two-part post, we cast our etymological line out in some other bodies of water—and reel in armpits, bosoms, crayfish soup, rheumatism, rifles, sponges, and vaults, among other sundries. Sorry, no boots or tires. Hey, we keep our lakes clean up here in the Twin Cities. 

Fast Mash

  • Bay enters English ~1400s from Old French and Late Latin, origin ultimately unknown and possibly Iberian in origin
  • Creek comes from Old Norse kriki (corner, nook)
  • Gulf originally meant bosom in Ancient Greek, from Proto-Indo European *kwelp- (to arch, vault)
  • Lake was borrowed via French from Latin lacus/lacuna (pool, ditch) but influenced by its Old English cognate lacu (stream)


As with so many words, bay‘s origin is unknown. But I love this fact. Words, for as much as I desire otherwise, seldom have Ur-meanings that conjure a magical past, a proto experience, a more primal understanding of the word. The signified’s sign is arbitrary, although we might take exception for linguistic imitation of the natural world. Nevertheless, the variation of human language is kaleidoscopically wonderful. And it keeps me busy at the Mashed Radish.

As an inlet of the seabay enters English ca. 1400, via Old French baie, from Late Latin baia. The best hypothesis is that the term is Pre-Roman and Iberian in origin (bahia?), potentially from the isolate Basque. Typically, languages have genealogies (e.g., French as daughter language of Latin, Latin as daughter language of an older Indo-European form) that linguists can map out. Not so for Basque; it stands on its own.

Baja means lower in Spanish and is unrelated. And, in spite of the learned efforts of John Thomson in his 1826 Etymons of English Words, so seem to be bow and bight, with origins in senses of bending and bosom, emphasizing curvature. This principle, of denoting geographic features as bends and bosoms, is spot on, though, just with different words. See gulf. Skeat also attempted an origin in the past participle of Latin’s badare (to gape), but this seems quite unlikely.

Incidentally, bisque (originally a crayfish soup) is said to be an altered form of Biscay—as in the Bay of—meaning low ridge or prominence in Basque Country.


A staple of any American English dialectical survey, creek, and its widespread variant pronounced as crick, took the form creke in the mid-15c., from kryk, used in place names as early as the 12c. The term seems to be from the Old Norse kriki, meaning corner or nook. The language even had handakriki, meaning armpit. The sense of bending and turning may point to an ultimately origin in crook. The French crique also seems to owe its origin to a Scandinavian term, and it probably influenced that of creek. The Online Etymology Dictionary offers some nice insights on its exploratory past.

Extended to “inlet or short arm of a river” by 1570s, which probably led to use for “small stream, brook” in American English (1620s). Also used there and in Canada, Australia, New Zealand for “branch of a main river,” possibly from explorers moving up main rivers and seeing and noting mouths of tributaries without knowing they often were extensive rivers of their own. Slang phrase up the creek “in trouble,” often especially “pregnant,” first recorded 1941, perhaps originally armed forces slang for “lost while on patrol.” 


To me, gulf is a near “perfect” etymology. For many of us, it lives much of its life on a map or as a simple geographic term, taken for granted, specific yet simple, not necessarily an everyday word in use (unless you live on one) but everyday in its character, invisible by its own there-ness. But its origin displays a classic example of Grimm’s law, terrific metaphor, and surprising original and related meanings.

Gulf in its geographic sense was around in English in the 1400s, and later that century took its meaning of profound depth, inspiring engulf by the 1550s. Interestingly, engulf seems to hang around mostly in the phrase engulfed in flames. Anyways, golf meant gulf or whirlpool in Old French, taken from Late Latin colfos or colphos, itself lifted from the Greek kolpos, meaning bay or gulf.

The Greek is rooted in the Proto-Indo European *kwelp-, which denotes to arch or vault. A familiar cognate? English’s own overwhelm, evolved from hwealf and a-hwielfanWhelm exists, though archaic and poetic. Underwhelm was coined to riff on overwhelm—in 1953. That’s a fantastically recent and superb coinage, if I may say so myself.

So, kolpos meant gulf in Greek. But it didn’t always mean that. Earlier, it referred to the trough of waves, the fold in a garment, and, get this, bosom. The link is… curvaceousness. This lends a fleshy, pneumatic (and shall I say bathukolpian, or deep-bosomed) literalness to: When Aunt Ulga came in to hug me, she engulfed me in her bosom.  Latin’s sinus (yep, that kind of sinus) evolved in the same way, and might give you a whole new reason to get a little distracted the next time you drive along a sinuous road. German’s Busen can likewise mean gulf, bosom, and cleavage. 

Guess this puts a whole new spin on bodies of water.

And then we have Grimm’s Law. Jacob Grimm, one of the famed Brothers Grimm, was a renowned philologist and figure in 19th-c. Germany. He is perhaps best known as discovering the eponymous Grimm’s Law, which brought a whole new level of rigor to the pursuit of linguistics. Its influence to the field really cannot be underestimated.

The law demonstrates systematic sound shifts in Indo-European languages, illustrating genetic relationships between Indo-European languages. More specifically, a regular change between Proto-Indo-European and Proto-Germanic consonants in what is called a chain shift (props to Wikipedia for the chain):

bʰ → b → p → ɸ

dʰ → d → t → θ

gʰ → g → k → x

gʷʰ → gʷ → kʷ → xʷ

The superscript signifies aspiration (breath), the labialization (lip rounding). Father is a great example. In Latin, father is pater. Let’s follow the chain. According to the law, p becomes an f sound and t becomes a th sound. The examples are really astonishing, explaining why canine and hound are related, or gelato and cold.

Or—and please remember that I am only speculating here, as I do not pretend to be a historical linguist or phonologist/phonetician, only an armchair etymologist—kolpos and gulf. We see a straightforward change from p to f.

What about the and g? Grimm’s law should predict that the would change to (which sounds like the ch in German’s Ich). Indeed, there are a great many of irregularities; the stuff of language is never airtight. Something called Verner’s Law does explain some exceptions, although I don’t quite know if it properly applies here. So, any of my better linguistically educated or curious readers, I’d love to know your take on this. Could there be intermediary forms, a problem of historical orthography, some other natural accident of phonology?


Loch, lough, laguna, lagoon—English may call it lake, but I call it everywhere. I moved to Minneapolis about 6 months ago. I knew they called Minnesota the Land of 10,000 Lakes, but I didn’t know they really meant it.

Etymologically, in lake it seems two streams converge. In the early 12th-c., English picked up Old French’s lac or what I speculate is its Norman form, lack, referring generically to a body of water. The French evolved from the Latin, lacus (vattank, pool, reservoir, lake), related to lacuna (hole, pit, pond, pool). This latter term has its own place in English, denoting a gap or unfilled space. And the Latin leads back to the Proto-Indo European *laku-. I find it interesting that the primary sense of lacus is of a space (if not a manmade space) that can be filled with water, as opposed to of a lake as a natural geographic feature. However the Ancient Romans conceived of lakes, their word inspired the poetical lacustrine, which John Ashbery uses in his masterful poem These Lacustrine Cities.

This same root, *laku-, has its Germanic branch, giving Old English lacu for streamLeak is related. Good thing we didn’t call them the Los Angeles Leakers. I should say Minneapolis Leakers, given where the team originally called home many decades ago.

Lacu became lake (the pronounced as a short vowel or schwa) in Middle English, and variously signified stream, river gully, ditch, and marsh, and even grave and pit of hell. I suppose these latter two clarify the infernal image of the “lake of fire” in the Book of Revelations. And the original Meat Puppets’ track (and the perhaps better known Nirvana Unplugged in New York cover) of the same name. (I came of age in the ’90s, during which Nirvana’s Unplugged was its own kind of bible, and I guess I’m biased to its more indie feel. I also now appreciate what is probably just the rhyme-convenient Duluth shout-out, if one would ever call it that.)

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