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To whet your almost blunted purpose… Part 1

Yes, you understood the title and identified its source correctly: this pseudo-Shakespearean post is meant to keep you interested in the blog “The Oxford Etymologist” and to offer some new ideas on the origin of the highlighted adjective. Blunt is of course a word of unknown origin, but in the bleak December, as well as in the blooming June, outside an introductory course to students, only obscure, even impenetrable words are worthy of discussion. The others are the stuff no one’s dreams are any longer made on.

In the OED, Murray gave a survey of the rather numerous dismissible conjectures on the etymology of blunt and left the question in limbo, where, to judge by the most authoritative recent sources, it still stays (even the otherwise courageous Henry Cecil Wyld refused to commit himself). I am aware of a single ingenious but unconvincing post-1884 hypothesis along the same lines and will later mention it. However, some progress in the discussion of the history of blunt has been made. Unfortunately (and here I’ll harp on a familiar note), our post-Skeat and post-OED English etymological dictionaries are mainly teamwork written in a hurry: their editors and contributors, with the partial exception of Weekley, had no knowledge of the countless suggestions on the origin of English words made in journals, reviews, and fugitive miscellanies. To my mind, a fairly convincing derivation of blunt was offered half a century ago, and in what follows I will give it full credit, but, regardless of that attempt to see light, a look at the old opinions about blunt will be instructive: among other things, it will show how researchers go in circles, unaware of or uninterested in the ideas of their fellow travelers.

A page from the manuscript of the Middle English poem Ormulum (ca. 1200), in which the adjective blunt turned up for the first time.

Blunt first surfaced in Ormulum, a poem composed at the end of the twelfth century. This work (a long collection of versified homilies) is as dull from an artistic point of view as it is useful to language historians—mainly, but not exclusively, on account of its bizarre orthography. The poem’s author, a monk called Orm, spoke the Lincolnshire dialect. Lincolnshire, East Midlands, was part of the Danelaw, so that, not unexpectedly, the text is full of northern words, and for years etymologists have been trying to find the Scandinavian root of blunt. The few native (English) words that sound like blunt do not match its meaning. The French provenance of this adjective need not be considered, because the place name Bluntisaham, that is, a “hall” belonging to a man called Blunt, was known as early as 950, long before the Norman invasion of England. Bluntisaham also makes the Scandinavian provenance of blunt unlikely. The Century Dictionary recognized this fact and said that blunt was probably of English heritage, but the etymology it offered (a rehash of some old guesses) leaves one disappointed.

The situation is familiar: the recorded history of rather many English words begins with personal names. This is what happened to boy and bad (for bad, see a relatively recent series of posts). To put it differently: the adjective blunt existed as an independent word but did not make its way into books until 1200 (the Middle English period), while as a personal name it was attested long before that date. Such names (Bad, Blunt, and their likes) must have originated as nicknames. It should be remembered that medieval nicknames had an almost inconceivably offensive ring. The public reveled in every physical defect. References to ineptitude and mishaps, along with sexual innuendos, were flaunted like family heirlooms, but, strangely, they don’t seem to have aroused the targets’ wrath. Thus, someone was known as bad/Bad and his “neighbor” as blunt/Blunt, but what did blunt ~ Blunt mean? Obtuse, stupid?

Anyone can see why pint had a long vowel.
Anyone can see why pint had a long vowel.

The OED groups the senses of blunt according to the known chronology: first, “dull, insensitive, stupid, obtuse,” then “of an angle, edge, or point ‘obtuse’; of a tool or weapon: ‘without edge or point.” “Dull, stupid, etc.” is the meaning found in the Ormulum; the first mention of “with a dull edge” surfaced only in 1398. But literal meanings, one should think, should precede the figurative, metaphorical ones: it seems that people began to speak about blunt knives and swords and only then, by association, about blunt (stupid) individuals. Therefore, the great Middle English Dictionary reversed the order and classified the senses according to logic, rather than dating: “dull, not sharp, without edge,” followed by “dull, stupid, obtuse, ?morally blind.” In addition to blunt, the Middle English spellings blont, blount, blond, and blund are given. They make the already puzzling situation even more so, but that is why the origin of blunt is “unknown.” Something, we assume, must be wrong with the large picture.

The list cited above (blont, blount, and blond, alongside blunt) is less innocent than it seems. In a way, the entire etymology of blunt depends on the final consonant. If it were d, it would be natural to try to connect blunt with blind and especially with blunder. Blunt people are apt to make blunders and sometimes forget themselves and behave, as though they were blind. The connections are far-fetched, but less probable semantic links have sometimes proved viable. We will see that numerous researchers tried to break open this door (blunt supposedly from blind and blunder). However, blunt clearly had final t. Besides, blount cannot be a continuation of blunt, because the diphthong in it (the sound we now spell as ou) can go back only to a long vowel, as in Modern Engl. too, boo, woo: thus, hus yielded house, nu became now, etc. Very early, short u was lengthened before nd but not before nt! Therefore, in the modern language, find does not rhyme with flint. The only word that has a diphthong before nt is pint, and that is why no genuine English noun, adjective, or verb rhymes with it. The history of pint reads like a thriller, but it should not concern us here.

This is an ounce, but not the one you expected. Not every ounce is small. Shelley, in Prometheus Unbound, spoke about hooded (presumably, blindfolded) ounces pursuing hinds.
This is an ounce, but not the one you expected. Not every ounce is small. Shelley, in Prometheus Unbound, spoke about hooded ounces pursuing hinds.

The family name Blount must once have had long u, as in count, mount, and their likes. All of them are of French origin. But there was no French blunt! It seems that late Middle Engl. blunt “lacking sharpness; stupid” was confused with blond “having fair hair,” though their meanings had nothing in common and though blond never had final -t. I have read the statement that the family name Blount meant both “blunt” and “blond.” This is a precarious formulation. How could such senses coexist in one word? To a non-specialist it may seem odd that a minor complication (the difference between final d and t) can derail a seemingly reasonable etymology. Alas! It can and should, because neither the Anglo-Saxons nor the French devoiced final b, d, g. Likewise, Modern Engl. robe, lend, and brig are distinct from rope, lent, and brick. In the science of etymology (sorry for the pompous phrase), half of the work depends on phonetics. God is not related to good, and Latin deus is not related to Greek théos (both mean “god”) only because their sounds do not match. If we disregard such niceties, we will end up in the Middle Ages, a period good to study, but not to live in.

So where do we begin the search for the “scientific” etymology of blunt? Wait for the answer until next week.

Image Credit: (1) “Lincolnshire” by Anonymous. Public Domain via Google Maps. (2) “A page from the Ormulum demonstrating the editing performed over time by Orm (Parkes 1983, pp. 115–16), as well as the insertions of new readings by “Hand B” by Geogre. Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons. (3) “Beer” by StockSnap. Public Domain via Pixabay. (4) “A three-year-old jaguar kept at the Belize Zoo, west of Belize City, Belize” by Bjørn Christian Tørrissen. CC BY SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

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