Word of the Month: Aplomb

Aplomb – Perpendicularity and poise


Now imagine yourself in a striped t-shirt, a string of onions around your neck, and a baguette in the basket of your bicycle; try saying it again.

That’s better.

This mass noun is an Anglicisation of the French idiom ‘à plomb’, meaning ‘according to the plummet’ (or the plumbline). Sometime between the late 18th century and the early 19th century, the term, with its figurative sense of ‘composure’, or even more literally ‘perpendicularity’, ‘vertical position’, crossed the channel and entered English, following in the footsteps of its ancestor Gallicisms of the Norman conquest.

(Gallicism: a French idiom, especially one adopted by speakers of another language.)

The Oxford Online English Dictionary now defines it as ‘self-confidence or assurance, especially when in a demanding situation’, and the Cambridge English Dictionary as ‘confidence and style’. Typically used with the preposition ‘with’, as in ‘she conducted herself with aplomb on her first day in job’, its closest synonyms are ‘equanimity’ and ‘poise’.

But dare we delve a little deeper?

Because if we look at ‘plumbline’, and the equivalent French derivation ‘plomb’, we can see roughly where our modern ‘plumber’ came from. The Latin ‘plumbum’, meaning lead (like the lead weight on a plumbline), spawned our English verb ‘to plumb’.

In its primary and most traditional sense, this means to ‘measure (the depth of a body of water)’, which I imagine plumbers do, or more metaphorically to ‘explore or experience fully or to extremes’. It can also mean to ‘test (an upright surface) to determine the vertical’ – remember our literal meaning of ‘aplomb’ being ‘perpendicularity’?

And the two meanings are neatly bound in the noun ‘plumb’ which is ‘a ball of lead or other heavy object attached to the end of a line for finding the depth of water or determining the vertical on an upright surface’.

It’s also got some really nice adjectival and adjective forms from ‘exactly’ to ‘vertical(ly)’, and, describing a cricket wicket, ‘level’ or ‘true’.

And, just because it’s a bank holiday weekend, get this. The second, more modern sense of the verb ‘to plumb’ is to ‘install an appliance such as a bath, toilet, or washing machine and connect to water and drainage pipes’, which is a back-formation of ‘plumber’. So, an etymological journey from verb to noun to new verb. In a similar way, we had ‘editors’ before people began to talk about ‘editing’ things. Who knew.

So, although this little noun might not be as subtly integrated into our linguistic systems as its earlier ancestors, its origins are deeply entangled with some similar ones of our own. And I think its French ring, which doesn’t seem to have worn off over two centuries, is distinctly charismatic.


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