Sunday, October 21, 2012

word of the day: poltroon

The word of the day is poltroon:

Etymology:  < Middle French, French poultron, poltron coward (1509; 1495 as poiltron in sense ‘good-for-nothing’), lazy person (1552), bird with clipped talons (1680) < Italian poltrone worthless or cowardly person (13th cent.), lazy person (a1348), ultimately < a post-classical Latin derivative (compare post-classical Latin poledrus , poletrus , pulletrus foal (7th cent. or earlier)) of classical Latin pullus young animal (see pull n.2; compare classical Latin pullitra young chicken, pullet (Varro); the exact suffixation is uncertain); with the suffixation of the Italian word compare -one -oon suffix.
The derivation (by popular etymology) of poltron from an unattested post-classical Latin phrase pollice truncus ‘maimed or mutilated in the thumb’ (i.e. in order to shirk military service, a practice mentioned by Latin authors from the 4th cent.), was suggested by Salmasius (1640), and was long accepted as the etymology; it probably gave rise to the use in falconry in French and English.
A. n.1. An utter coward; a mean-spirited person; a worthless wretch. Also used as a general term of abuse. Now chiefly arch. or humorous. 
2. Falconry. A falcon whose hind talons have been removed. Obs. rare. 
B. adj. Characteristic of or resembling a poltroon; cowardly; wretched. Now rare. (OED)

"For adult readers, both then and in the future, there were several ways of decoding this story, from misogynist ("That's what women are like, the bloodsuckers") to feminist ("That's what men really think of women, the poltroons") to sadomasochist ("That's what I'd call a fun day out") to arachnologist ("That's an interesting commentary on the progeny-feeding strategems of spiders")."

 - Margaret Atwood, "The spider women", 4 & 11 June 2012 The New Yorker

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