Daily Archives: July 17, 2009

escutcheon

Lord Floppington: “Would you care to come up and see my escutcheon?” Miss Primsley: “Good heavens! Do I look like a tropical disease specialist?”

This word’s object is not actually so objectionable. But it does have a scratchy sound, doesn’t it? Or perhaps something metallic and scrapey, like a ratchety flivver or, more to the point, a sword against a shield. Ah, a shield! But not just any shield. This one goes with not a suit of armor but a coat of arms. An escutcheon is an object for discussion (perhaps at a luncheon), and has as little function in its ostensible design as a Freemason’s trowel. In short, it is a skeuomorph. And if you have a blot on your escutcheon, it is not so likely the blood of your enemies as the ichor of your wounded reputation.

Escutcheon is such an ungraceful word (if not the roughest you’ve lately heard) – escaped from the chat of retired captains, or sworn by sailors agrunt at capstans – where could it come from, this word of the bench, the musket, the whiskers, but from the French? Yes, of course, this ornament of fights came from the land of gallant knights. In Old French it was escuchon, and that in turn comes from the Latin for “shield”: scutum. Now, there’s an unpretty word (one could have a ball with puns, but I’ll let that hang)! But if you’ve ever wondered why in heck anyone would name a line of high-end rain coats Aquascutum, you now have your answer: they are not merely water shield but escutcheon, an emblem of membership in the plutocracy (as endorsed by generations of royalty).