A Plumb Interesting Set of Words

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When I saw the following passage on the Simon Schuster site, I was plumb surprised:

When twelve-year-old Jamie Dexter’s brother joins the Army and is sent to Vietnam, Jamie is plum thrilled.

I expect one of the last major publishers to get their spellings right.

The wordsplumandplumbare homophones, but not synonyms.

Admittedly, in the Middle Ages, the spellings hadn’t quite settled down, but for the past couple of centuries, the different spellings have become established and denote different meanings.

Literally, the wordplum指李属圆顶的水果stica. From the fruit, it has acquired the meaning of a purple or reddish color.

Figuratively,plumrefers to any desirable thing, the pick of the crop.

But it’s unclear whether Frank could still convince Patrick to get the plum job.

He’s got a safe House seat and a plum assignment on the Appropriations Committee

In the eighteenth century,plumwas slang for the sum of £100,000 or a fortune. A more recent slang use, usually in the plural, denotes the testicles.

Levy wouldn’t know a quality player if he jumped up and kicked him in the plums.

Fromplumcomes the adjectiveplummy, which can also be used to describe something desirable, as a plummy job.

Plummyis also used to describe a type of voice or speech: “mellow, deep resonant, and carefully articulated in a way associated with the educated English upper classes.” (OED).

The two-decade-old clip of a plummy-voiced boy [Rishi Sunak] admitting the limits of his social circle raised the ire of the British public . . .

The connection of speech with plum? Some think that such speakers sound as if they are talking around a plum in the mouth.

The word plumb can function as a noun, an adjective, and an adverb.

To begin with,plumbmeant lead. The Latin word for lead isplumbum. (That’s why the chemical symbol for lead is Pb.)

Aplumb bobis a piece of lead intended to be hung from a plumb line.

Aplumb lineis a string with a weight attached. It is used in carpentry to establish the vertical. Things can be “in plumb” or “out of plumb,” according to whether they are perfectly vertical or not.

The early skyscrapers used heavy plumb-bobs hung on wire in their elevator shafts.

The chalked plumb line varieties will snap and leave a nice neat line for you.

The nounplumb, meaning “exactly in alignment” led to the uses ofplumbto mean “completely, absolutely.” It is this definition that brings us back to Jamie in the Simon and Schuster quotation. Little Jamie was “plumb thrilled.”

Here are another two examples ofplumbto mean completely:

Judge Crater disappeared in August, plumb vanished from the middle of Manhattan.

I discovered that the other eggs she was setting on were plumb ruined so it was the right decision.

Plumbas a verb
Plumb lines were once used to measure the depth of water.To plumbis “to measure the depth of.”

The verb is used figuratively.

New research to plumb the mysteries of mitochondria.

Positive Psychology prods us to plumb the deepest fonts of satisfaction in life.

This word labels two very different things.

The “lead” in your pencil is plumbago, i.e., graphite.

And there’s a shrub popular in Florida that is calledplumbago.

The lead connection with graphite is plain enough, but why would a plant have such a name?

Turns out that the plant was known to Pliny the Elder (CE 23-79). Something about it reminded him of lead—perhaps its blue flowers—so he called itplumbago, Latin for “resembling lead.” Another name for the plant is “leadwort.”

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2 thoughts on “A Plumb Interesting Set of Words”

  1. And it’s LED WERT, rhymes with Bert, not rhyming with Mort. Sorry, always have to stray into my pronunciation obsession. I was watching a TV show about the the Knights TempLER, not tempLAR, and it’s been driving me nuts.

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