Sunday, February 08, 2009


Helen from Montpelier wrote, “Where did the word summersalt come from?”

You would have found it more easily had you spelled the word somersault; it’s not tied to a particular season or seasoning. The word came into English from the French in 1530, and it was associated with acrobats or tumblers. It’s a leap in which a person turns heels over head in the air and lands on the feet. Eventually, it took on the figurative meaning of flipflopping on an issue; as such, it was used in the recent American presidential campaign.

The French derived it from two Latin words: supra, above or overhead, and saltus, a leap. Saltus shows up in the etymology of two other common words.

An assault is literally a leaping toward. We take it to mean a rush upon someone with hostile intent, a physical or verbal attack.

The other word is insult, literally a leaping in. In medical parlance, an insult is a bodily injury or trauma. Otherwise, it’s contemptuous and offensive rudeness.

SIDEBAR: classic insults

Now available from McFarland & Co.: Word Parts Dictionary, 2nd edition

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