Does this word seem somehow wounded? Truncated, perhaps, or otherwise cut? An eviscerated vulcan? Or a vulnerability that has been exploited? Or, if not wounded, then at least tightly wound?

Oops. Did you see what I did there? Tsk. How is a person supposed to know which wound I’m using when I do that? It would be like if we had the same letter to represent both a consonant and a vowel. OK, well, yes, we do, y. But what if we used the same letter for v and u? What if we spelled this word vvln or uuln?

As in fact we used to. After all, v and u have only been treated as different letters for a couple of centuries. They both come from Latin v, which, classically, had a [w] sound as a consonant and an [u] or [ʊ] sound as a vowel (as in “boo” and “book” respectively). Over the centuries, as letters developed cursive forms, there came to be an alternative u shape for v, but the sounds also pulled apart and its consonantal value moved to [v]. So some bright sparks recommended that, rather than having two interchangeable forms of a letter that stood for two different sounds, one form should go with one sound and the other with the other. (This happened with i and j too.) So back in the 1500s, this word could be seen written as vvln, uuln, vuln, or even uvln, though probably not so much that last one.

Fair enough, for three reasons. The second reason is that in some people’s handwriting – mine, for instance – the letter n looks pretty much like the letter u. The third reason is that the standard English pronunciation of this word is represented in the International Phonetic Alphabet as /vʌln/, yet another case of flipping shapes. The first reason – a longer, more important reason, which is why it’s the first but why I’m getting to it last – is that the word comes from Latin vulnus, i.e., vvlnvs (or uulnus), “wound”, as in the noun for what you receive from a sword. It’s also the root of vulnerable, the first syllable of which is identical to today’s word in pronunciation as well as spelling.

So why would we need another word for “wound” when we already have wound, aside from that it can be confused with the past form of the verb wind (which has a similar issue in the present)? It’s not as though we have a special need for another word with a swallowed /l/ in the middle. And actually it seems we wouldn’t need another word; vuln is pretty much not used nowadays. With one little exception. There is one preserve of pretty little archaic and rare Latinate words that is a natural resting place for this word, this vulnerable little fallen angle (that’s not a typo): heraldry.

Heraldic shields, after all, often feature animals. Sometimes those animals are wounded. Well, no, in heraldry they’re vulned – often stuck through with a spear as vuln is stuck through with the l. (I can see this catching on with the role-playing game crowd: “I seriously vulned him with my Ethereum phase-spear.”)

But there is also one bird that is said to be vulning. A vulture? A falcon? No, it’s a bird that is known for constantly picking at its chest, an act that is referred to (in heraldry) as vulning, on the idea that the bird is wounding itself. It’s a bird that happens to have given its name to a famous and forbidding prison. Which bird? The pelican.

What, you’ve never heard of a famous jail named after pelicans? Of course you have, and it even had a “bird man”… I’ll tell you about it tomorrow.

3 responses to “vuln

  1. James,
    When you are meditating on Pelicans, you may want to dig around to see why the pelican is so often carved on medieval pulpits and altars. I’m vaguely aware that the bleeding breast has something to do with the mass.
    And don’t forget Ogden Nash’s final word on pelicans.
    What a wonderful bird is the pelican.
    It’s beak can hold more than its belly can.
    In can hold in its beak enough food for a week.
    And I don’t know how in the hell he can.

  2. Pingback: alcatras, pelican | Sesquiotica

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