Thursday, September 06, 2007


I love words with multiple meanings, especially wildly disparate ones, and pole is one of them. It started life as a word describing the straight stem of a slender tree stripped of its branches [OED].

Along the way, the noun developed other meanings, among them:

• a shaft used in a horse-drawn vehicle
• a ship’s mast
• a post used to signal a business, as in barber’s pole
• a fishing rod
• an erect penis
• The long, flexible rod used by a competitor in the pole vault
• a directional support used in skiing
• a measure used in surveying
• the rails in horse racing
• the tail of a pheasant
• a young tree

Of particular interest is the rare combining form -pole, which had a completely different origin. It’s from the Greek pollein, to sell, and it signifies a merchant. Thus we have

• pharmacopole, a seller of drugs or remedies
• bibliopole, a dealer in books
• monopole, exclusive privilege to make or sell something

SIDEBAR: the Festivus Pole

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