Saturday, July 30, 2011

Is This A Dagger Which I See Before Me . . . ?

The Latin verb pungere, to prick or sting, produced three connected sensory words in English: pungent, piquant, and poignant.

Pungent originally referred to the kind of pain that comes from stabbing or piercing, whether literal or figurative. In the 17th century, the additional meaning of “forcefully or trenchantly expressed” was added, soon followed by “intensely flavored.”

Piquant started off as a sharp object, especially the spine of a hedgehog. It progressed to a sharp taste, then to wounded feelings. “Fascinating or charming” eventually crept in.

Poignant took a side trip through French, which influenced the spelling. It started as a reference to taste or smell, transferred to physical pain, then settled on mental feelings: grief, regret, or despair. Along the way, sorrowful tenderness (paradoxically, a pleasurable pain) worked its way in.

Related words include compunction, expunge, punctual, puncture, and punctum.

Pun Gent: a man addicted to paronomasia.

SIDEBAR: Recipe for sauce piquant

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

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