Monday, November 06, 2006

Bob, Bob, Bobbin' Along

Q. Where does the term “plumb bob” come from?
Mark, Traverse City, MI

A. A plumb bob is a piece of metal suspended on a string. It is used to establish straight vertical lines. Often, the string is chalked and then snapped while taut to draw a perfect line.

The plumb part comes from the Latin plumbum, which meant lead, the metal. It seems that the Romans used lead pipes to conduct water because the substance was easy to work with. Some have speculated that lead poisoning contributed to the downfall of the Roman Empire, but most authorities disagree. At any rate, the original plumbers were lead workers.

The origin of bob is uncertain. It may come from the verb to bob since the weight, when first dropped, bounces a bit. Fishermen are familiar with bobbers, plastic or cork floaters that bounce up and down with the waves, and mariners plumbed the depths by dropping a metal weight suspended on the end of a rope. Another explanation points to the Middle English word bobbe, a cluster of fruit, due to a supposed resemblance between the chunk of metal and grapes. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, bob is still used in Scotland to designate a bouquet--or cluster--of flowers.

A versatile word, bob can also mean a knob, a sleigh runner, an earring, a knot of hair at the back of the head, a horse’s tail docked short, a woman’s short hair style, the weight on the tail of a kite, a lump of clay used by potters, and the grub of a beetle.

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