The etymological pivot of “pivot”

All eyes are on Donald Trump to see if he will pivot to a more presidential bearing now that he’s the presumptive nominee of the Republican party. But who am I kidding? All eyes have been on the businessman.

My etymological eyes, however, have been on pundits’ and reporters’ go-to term for Trump’s potential repositioning: pivot. Where does this word come from?

The blades of scissors pivot on the central pin. Just be sure to keep these away from Trump’s hair. Image by Alessandro Paiva from


Originally, a pivot was a “hinge pin” or “fulcrum”: a central rod around which a mechanism turns. The Oxford English Dictionary (OED) first documents the word in the compound pivot shears (“pevet-sheres”) by the very end of the 14th century. By the mid 1700s, pivot itself pivoted from mechanism to metaphor for any central part or person of an operation. The word has since been swiveling in military contexts, linguistics, sports, math, and even Japanese poetry. Come the 1830-40s, we find both the adjective pivotal (“crucial”) and the verb pivot.

As a verb today, pivot often expresses a very particular action: a swift and strategic turn on the spot, or, better yet, pivot . At least since the late 1890s according to the OED, basketball players have been so pivoting, with one foot pivoting on the floor, the other maneuvering for the best path to the basket. President Obama, for example, has been pursuing a foreign policy “Pivot to Asia,” shifting interests and investments away from the Middle East to East Asia and the Pacific.

Now, English’s pivot derives from the French pivot, also naming a “pivot,” though the record shows figurative extensions early on; one usage references a kind of dance. But from here, etymologists have oscillated on the word’s deeper origins.

Some look to the Spanish púa (“sharp point”), Catalan piu (“spindle”), and Occitan pivèu (“pivot,” in the earlier mechanical sense of the word). Perhaps, as Barnhart notes, all these pivot on the Old Provençal pua, the “tooth of a comb,” emerging from a pre-Celtic Indo-European *puga, a “point” or “peak.” A related form is the Latin pūgiō: a “dagger.”

Others, like Skeat, consider the Italian piva, a “pipe,” ultimately from Latin’s pipare, “to chirp like a bird,” and source of English’s own pipe. Italian, Weekley observes, also has a diminutive pivolo, a “peg,” “dibble,” and “penis.” The latter requires little of the imagination for its explanation.

We don’t know the ultimate origin of pivot, but, for many, its proposed roots may still apply to Trump’s presumptive nomination. Many on the right worry his nomination will be a lethal dagger to their party and principles. Many on the left – and right and center – think he’s a not so diminutive pivolo. But as divided as American politics may be, we can all agree Trump will definitely be relying on the teeth of a comb to keep his hair coiffed for the next phase of the campaign, regardless of whether or not he pivots.

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Last week, well over 700 people tragically died in a stampede in Mina, a neighborhood outside Mecca where Muslims carry out a symbolic stoning as part of the Hajj. This stampede occurred in the deserts of Western Asia, but the word stampede originates near the deserts of the American West.

Mortar and Pestle_Ink on Paper_doodle
“Mortar and pestle.” Ink on paper. Doodle by @andrescalo.


According to the Oxford English Dictionary (OED), English took to stampede in 1823. It is first cited as a verb describing a herd of cattle becoming panic-stricken and taking flight. The earliest record the OED finds is in The Austin Papers, firsthand documents left behind by Moses and Stephen F. Austins’ efforts to settle Texas. The capital of the Lone Start State still remembers their name.

English took stampede from the Mexican Spanish estampida, a special usage of estampido, a “crash,” “bang,” “boom,” or “uproar.” With the initial e dropped by a process called aphesis, early forms of stampede show its Spanish origins still settling in: stampado, stampedostampido, and stompado. The latter, stompado, also appears in an early passage illustrating the sonic intensity that inspired the Spanish word. In his 1826 novel, Francis BerrianOr the Mexican PatriotTimothy Flint writes of wild horses:

Instantly, this prodigious multitude, and there were thousands of them, took what the Spanish call “stompado.” With a trampling like the noise of thunder, or still more like that of an earthquake, a noise that was absolutely appalling, they took to their heels, and were all in a few moments in the verdant depths of the plains, and we saw them no more.

As we so sadly saw in Mina, human stampedes don’t have “verdant depths of the plains” to flee to.

The connection of stampedes to humans occurred quickly, evidenced in the OED very soon after its original usage appears. Stampedes have also referred to gold rushes, rodeos, and, at US political conventions, rushes to nominate “the candidate who seems likely to win,” (OED) which clearly remains to be seen in the current race for the White House.


Many scholars place the Spanish estampido in the Provençal estampar, “to stamp,” as in “to press” or “pound.” The word is common across the Romance languages, believed to have been borrowed from a Germanic root, *stamp-. The American Heritage Dictionary of Indo-European Roots sees this ultimately as a nasalized form of a Proto-Indo-European root, *stebh-, a “post” or “stem” in noun form, “to place firmly on” or “to fasten” in verb form. Staff, staplestepstoop, and stump are also considered derivatives – as is stamp, as you probably originally guessed.

Like its Romance cognates, stamp has taken on a variety of meanings over the centuries. Today, stamp likely evokes postage or foot-pounding for English speakers. But the earliest record we have for stamp in the language actually refers to mortar and pestles. The OED has evidence for a form of stamp as early as 1000, a verb meaning “to bray in a mortar.” As the OED helps us out,  the sense is “to pound” or “beat to a pulp.”

Let’s look not to the process but the product of a mortar and pestle, which has, for so long along our greater human pilgrimage, helped create medicine and nourishment – something that the many wounded in the stampede, or the many who have lost a loved one in it, well deserve.

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