Daily Archives: November 18, 2008


A short, punchy word, on the whole – or, rather, several identical short, punchy words. One (or two, counting noun and verb) comes from puncheon, a tool for poking holes or, by extension, stamping into (as with a die), which comes from the same Latin source as puncture. From this application of direct force came the sense with the fist. One comes from a commedia dell’arte character, Policinella, with a big paunch and a hooked nose, who became Punchinello, an English puppet character, shortened to Punch, who became best known for beating his wife, Judy, with a stick. One comes from the Sanskrit and Hindi word for “five,” as in five ingredients – in a beverage that was adapted by the English to something that rather caught on. (And began drifting semantically quickly once unmoored from the Raj – rum punch, big in the West Indies, has four ingredients classically: “one of sour, two of sweet, three of strong and four of weak” are the measures.) But a good glass of punch packs a punch (and may punch a hole in your stomach if you have H. pylori problems). Hole is certainly a common collocation of this word, and ticket comes in often enough with the same sense, but outside of specific uses – and even to some extent within them – the puncture sense is bested by the pugnacious force of the word. Other collocations include pulling, packing, drunk, press, card, in, out and up. Even the letters have more the rounded shape of a blunt object (fist, wife-beating stick*) than any reminiscence of an awl or similar piercing object. Only a vowel separates this word from pinch, but the broad u and the narrow i are as opposed as the two actions. This word has the opening phonaesthetics of abrupt words such as puff, punt, pug, and punish, and the closing impact of crunch, bunch and hunch and the crisper munch and lunch. But when you’re quaffing a glass, it may make you think sooner of quench.

*The story that “rule of thumb” comes from the size of a stick a man was allowed to beat his wife with is not true; that account was invented long after the phrase, which came from estimating measurements. See www.worldwidewords.org/qa/qa-rul1.htm .