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Q From Steven Shumak: Let me ask you point-blank: What is the origin of this phrase?

A The blank here is the French word blanc, for the colour white. Archery and artillery targets conventionally had a white spot at the centre at which arrows and shot were aimed. So to point blank was to aim directly at the white. The phrase is known from the end of the sixteenth century, and the figurative sense had developed by the 1650s.

It came to refer particularly to missiles fired close enough to the target that they travelled straight to it, horizontally, with no time for the shot to seem to drop under gravity. You had to be close to the target for this to be true, so it came to mean firing at close range where it was difficult to miss.

Some have suggested that the whole phrase comes from the French point blanc, meaning a white mark, but the OED says firmly that the expression originated in English, and that blank as an English version of the French was in use some time before point-blank appeared. So it seems likely that point here is actually the verb, not the noun.

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Copyright © Michael Quinion, 1996–. All rights reserved.
Page created 26 Feb. 2000

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The English language is forever changing. New words appear; old ones fall out of use or alter their meanings. World Wide Words tries to record at least a part of this shifting wordscape by featuring new words, word histories, words in the news, and the curiosities of native English speech.

World Wide Words is copyright © Michael Quinion, 1996–. All rights reserved.
This page URL: http://www.worldwidewords.org/qa/qa-poi1.htm
Last modified: 26 February 2000.