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Q From Peter Ingerman: I have tried, vainly, to discover the relationships among punt (a flat-bottomed boat), punt (a tactic in American football), and

punt (the dimple in the bottom of a wine bottle). Can you help with this mystery?

A To respond with another question, I’d be interested to know why you might think a connection exists between them? Some background may help to explain what I’m getting at.

English is rife with words that are confusingly similar. Some are spelled differently but have the same sound (homophones): break/brake, heal/heel, cereal/serial; others are spelled the same but pronounced differently (homographs), such as entrance, invalid, moped, or wound. A third set (homonyms) — to which your group belongs — combine the similarities: they are said and spelled the same, but have different meanings: bear, distemper, founder, plain, saw, tender.

Native speakers are so used to them that we aren’t in the least bothered that rest can mean both repose and remainder, that a bank may be both a financial institution and a place where the wild thyme blows, or that — lacking context — spring might refer to a jump, a rivulet or a season. Whole dictionaries have been dedicated to resolving confusions between such words for learners of English as a second language.

One reason why we have so many homonyms is that English is a mongrel language that has imported words from many sources, sometimes more than once, and has frequently modified them to generate new senses. Its utter lack of purity has been well expressed:

The problem with defending the purity of the English language is that English is about as pure as a cribhouse whore. We don’t just borrow words; on occasion, English has pursued other languages down alleyways to beat them unconscious and rifle their pockets for new vocabulary.

James Nicoll, in rec.arts.sf-lovers, 1990. Mr Nicoll is a Canadian freelance games and science-fiction reviewer.

The result is that sets of homonyms rarely have a common source. An exception is the common senses of rap — a quick blow, a knocking sound, a type of popular music, talk or gossip, a commendation, a rebuke, a criminal charge — which all do seem to derive from the idea of a tap or blow.

Your word punt demonstrates this hybrid nature. The sense of the flat-bottomed boat comes from Latin ponto (which, at the risk of sending us on another homonym chase, is also where pontoon comes from); the sense of the hollow in the bottom of a bottle may be from pontil, originally a French word for the iron rod that’s used to hold or shape soft glass; the OED says it means a little point, but my French etymological dictionaries argue that it’s a little bridge (pont, from the Latin pons); the sense in Rugby or American Football for releasing the ball from the hands and giving it a kick before it reaches the ground may be from punt, to push forcibly, perhaps from the idea of pushing with a punt pole; it may also be linked with bunt — of unknown origin — to strike, knock or push, which is the source of the baseball term for gently tapping a pitched ball without swinging the bat.

There are other senses of punt beyond the three you’ve given. It might be a bet or gamble (hence the British English punter for a person who gambles or makes a risky investment), which dictionaries cautiously suggest may be from French ponter, to bet against the bank in games of cards; before the Irish joined the Euro they had a monetary unit called the punt, which seems to be a variant form of pound; the mainly Commonwealth punt around, to move around in an aimless or easy-going manner, is said to be from one-time British police slang for patrolling, which in turn probably comes from the idea of leisure punting.

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Page created 15 Oct 2011