Does this word have just a faintly familiar ring to it somehow? If so, it’s not likely that you were watching Fatty Arbuckle as a parochial swashbuckler parboiling a carbuncle (or a barnacle). You probably heard or read it in a story about the salvage of the Costa Concordia. It’s what they’re calling the technique by which the ship was rolled rightside-up.

Well, it does have a sound suitable for nautical use, anyway. There’s that “arr” near the start, and the “buckle” right after it, and all those echoes I already used above. But it’s not actually originally a nautical term. After all, it’s not all that often that you need to roll a capsized ship back upright by pulling it with ropes.

And actually, what they’re doing to the Costa Concordia isn’t really quite the same as the original use of parbuckle. You see, they have the cables attached to the nearer side and are pulling directly on it. A parbuckle in the original sense would involve running the cables under the ship and then pulling them across the top.

Need a clearer image of what a parbuckle is? (Yes, it’s a noun first, and the verb was derived from that.) If you have shoji blinds on your windows, parbuckle is a good way to describe the way the ropes pull them up. If you don’t, well, do this: Get your significant other to lie on the middle of the bed. Flip up one side of the bedspread and lay it over him or her. Then go around to the other side and pull on that top edge so that your increasingly unimpressed s.o. rolls towards you and off the bed, thump.

The basic definition is thus that a parbuckle is a means of moving objects (usually lifting them up an inclined plane) by using a sling-type arrangement, usually of ropes or cables, so that the object is playing the part of the movable pulley. It also means that for every two metres you pull, the object moves one metre (thus you need only half the power that simpy lifting or pulling it would take). So it’s a way of moving heavy barrels up a slope, for instance.

The looser definition, used with the Concordia, is to roll a ship upright by pulling on the side (and making sure it rolls rather than just sliding). Well, it’s a fun word to say and at the same time sounds kinda technical – it’s not a word most people have heard before – so why not. And we know that newscasters just love, love, love to introduce an item with “It’s called ____.” In this case, “It’s called parbuckling.” And then you wait with bated breath to find out if parbuckling is more like twerking, more like tweeting, more like huffing, more like abseiling, or… more like pulling.

Where do we get this word? It’s not entirely clear. What we know is that it showed up in English in the 1600s as parbuncle, and a century or so later started being used as parbuckle because, well, belts and buckles and so on. It just sounded righter. Where did it come to English from? Maybe a Scandinavian word with bits referring to a pair of loops, but no one has seen an actual instance of such a word.

But what the heck. It’s a fun word. Enjoy it. You probably won’t get that many chances to use it. Polish it and stick it in your silverword drawer to bring out about as often as the runcible spoons.

4 responses to “parbuckle

  1. Perhaps the origin is
    Greek prefix par = at or to one side of, beside, side by side +
    Semitic bet-nun-heh BoNeh = build, erect, raise +
    Semitic gimel-lamed-gimel-lamed-taf GaLgalat = pulley or
    kuf-lamed-aiyin QaLa3 = sling
    Ciao, Izzy

  2. Loved this and your reference to runcible spoons! I actually used that term in a wishbook for a children’s charity some years ago.
    Your pieces are really enjoyable. Thank you

  3. Monroe Thomas Clewis

    Here’s a link to a piece about an invention which employs the parbuckle principle to save lives.

  4. Parbuckle is Old English ( possible nordic derivation accepted ) for a
    ( relatively simple ) means to to move heavy/awkward loads aboard or off board ( unship ) when short handed ( ie you don’t have the manpower to
    actually pick the damn thing up and carry it ! ) A line is belayed to a point
    above the load and the line looped under the load and back to the belaying
    point. Sometimes its several lines ! The point is that a simple parbuckle makes virtually no reduction in the loading weight on the hauled line, so it
    is far from ideal. That’s where multiple blocks come in handy !

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