I was just flipping through my paperback abridgement of Samuel Johnson’s dictionary, as one does on a leisurely Sunday evening, and I happened on this stub of a word: sprunt.

Well, now. What could it was? It starts with the spr that we see in spring and sprinkle and spruce and sprain and sprawl, and it ends with the unt that we see in hunt and shunt and bunt and punt and runt. The word as a whole looks like an irregular past participle of sprint – as in I sprint, I sprant, I have sprunt. There are several ways it could go. Or, of course, the meaning could be entirely unrelated to what it sounds like it means, although with two sound clusters that have vivid associations, that’s not so likely; even if it started out unrelated, the sense would tend to drift towards what people think it should mean.

According to Doctor Johnson, it means “Any thing that is short and will not easily bend.”

OK. So it’s strong on the runt and perhaps to some extent the sprig associations. A household is full of such sprunts, some in the kitchen, some in the toolbox, some in the office. Some are made of softer stuff such as paper, perhaps a stub for smudging sketches; others are made of metal that may be supposed to be pliable (such as tabs in picture frames or on cans) but will hurt your thumb when you try to use them as directed. One often has to take a roundabout route when dealing with such sprunts. Or just give up.

They are not the only kind of sprunt, however. If you turn to the Oxford Engish Dictionary, you find Johnson’s sprunt marked obsolete, with a direction in the etymology to compare sprunt adj. So you look to the adjective and find it is “Brisk, active, smart, spruce,” thereby more like spry and springy and not so blunt as many another unt. The etymology on that sprunt tells you it is “probably related to sprunt v.” The verb is defined as “To spring or start; to move in a quick or convulsive manner; to dart or run,” more like sprint and perhaps a bit of shunt or even jump. And the etymology suggests the two may be connected. Meanwhile, there is a second noun sprunt, derived from the verb: “A convulsive movement; a start; a spring or bound.”

If you next heft up your Webster’s Third New International Dictionary, Unabridged, from the floor, you will find the same trio of sprunts: verb, “to make a quick convulsive movement” as in jump or run (note the same central vowel in all three); noun, “a spasmodic movement” as in spring (note the same spr onset); adjective, obsolete, “active, brisk, spruce” (there’s that spr again). Webster’s traces the etymology to Scandinavian; in at least one version of Swedish, there is sprant ‘lively, brisk’ and sprinta ‘jump, hop’ and sprunta ‘jump’.

You will not find anything in Webster’s about Johnson’s little stump. I wonder if the ghost of the great lexicographer feels at all spurnt. Well, if he had made his definition longer, it might have been more flexible.

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