Daily Archives: November 17, 2012


You are a plunger if you plunge – if you lunge into the water, or fall like a plumb line: fill your lungs and dive in, and sink like lead. The direction is down, the image liquid; you may plunge into work or conversation or adventure, but it is like splashing into a lake, or a big bowl – perhaps of punch. The sound of a body entering deep liquid at speed: “plunge” (first, of course, you jump – and “jump” is like a sort of reversal of “plunge”, sonically: the voiced affricate ge or j, the central vowel and nasal un or um, the voiceless bilabial stop p… a difference is that there is a liquid l in plunge). And you do not make a plunge; you take the plunge – always one, and definite, and taken.

Usually, of course, the you that is a plunger is not a person. There are a few things that are called plungers, and they generally operate with a piston action – as in a coffee press, or a switch that one operates by pushing down on. Anything can plunge, but a plunger is conceptualized as having a piston-like shape: a larger head, circular but flattened or cup-like, and a long handle, extending back like a motion line in a cartoon. You could shoot it like an arrow. A suction-cup arrow.

A suction cup is, of course, what we think of most on the end of a plunger. Your toilet is clogged and you need an unplugger to purge it. You take the plunger and plunge into the work: plunge it into the disgusting water, lunge forward and pull backwards repeatedly; it intakes and expels like a lung (or something rather less worth naming). Push down u pull up n and repeat until the lump loosens and gurgles and chugs down, expunged. It may take some work. If the plunger is not of good quality, the rubber may lose flexibility in the cold water and simply break after a time, the rod punching its way through the cup. I had to go buy a new one today. How annoying.

Plunger, like so much of our vocabulary, has been brought back in a knapsack from a trip to France, pressed into service like a souvenir French press; the French word is plongeur, and the French for the verb plunge is plonger. The trail follows a curving route downward to Latin and plumbum, “lead” (Pb), as in a plumb bob or other leaded line cast and suspended. (I will avoid commentaries on lead bellies and plum bums.) In fishing terms, if you plunge, you drop in like a sinker.

And you can drop a plunger in a sink, too; they’re not just for toilets. Any clog in a pipe may be susceptible to forcing by compressing the water column with an abrupt pumping action. Oh, yes: plungers may look like suction cups, but they often suck at suction, so to speak; they are much more effective in the pushing part, typically. Which is suitable: when we think of plunging, we just think of the entry. Can you even tell me an equivalent word for exiting the body of water?