Friday, June 18, 2010


I recently wrote a sentence that began "A big, black dog barked in a desultory way...". At the time, I thought I knew what I was saying. But in examining the word I'm thinking that maybe I did not. What I meant to say was that the dog was barking in a half-hearted, not particularly urgent kind of way. But is that what desultory really means, or is it simply the meaning I supplied it with?

As has come up recently on this blog, when we learn words simply by context and without knowledge of their roots, we can sound perfectly correct in our sentences while being perfectly incorrect in our thoughts. The error may never be revealed--to ourselves or anyone else.

I don't know what that '-sult' ending means, and haven't found the commonality that would result in, uh, "result" and also "insult" as well as our featured word here. I could guess , but, well, actually I couldn't. So shall we just cut to the chase and see?

Okay--in the first place, '-sult' is 'leap' so 'result' is 'spring, forward, rebound' and 'insult'  is 'to leap upon, assault'. And 'desultory'?

It's 'to jump down' or off. This led to the image of a rider leaping from one horse to another. Our modern word comes from this image. For to leap from one horse to another is, in essence, to be uncommitted.

A desultory bark is an uncommitted bark.

I was right.

By the way, the photo above is of one Edwin "Poodles" Hanneford and his birthday was just a couple of days ago at the time of this writing. I can think of a lot worse ways to spend your time than to check out his short biography. And thinking about this a little, I think the last thing you can say about someone who jumps from horse to horse is that he or she is uncommitted... 


  1. I was disappointed to chase up 'consultation' (hoping to find that it originally meant 'being leaped upon by a con-man') but unfortunately the '-sult' bit here has a different origin.

    Also enjoyed the link to 'Poodles' Hanneford, and I was fascinated to learn that he and Robert Mitchum were in a film version of Steinbeck's 'The Red Pony'. Must try and get that sometime.

  2. I was sure one of my alternate -sults would be a different root, so I'm glad you found one. Don't have time before work to chase this down myself right now, so feel free to say what it is if you wish. That leapt upon by a conman would have been nice, though!

    Yes, I'm kind of inclined to do a Poodles Hanneford film marathon myself now.

  3. Hum, interesting. I admit, when you mentioned it came from someone leaping from horse to horse, I had no idea where you were going with it. I'd think it took some commitment to leap to another horse.

  4. Yes, I think originally it just meant leap off. But it came to describe riders who leapt back and forth and I think their 'inability' to decide which horse to ride is what lead to our present meaning. It makes sense as a metaphor, but not at all in actual practice.

  5. I was going to comment on this post, but, well, I don't know. I just ...
    Detectives Beyond Borders
    "Because Murder Is More Fun Away From Home"

  6. Okay, I give--who is it? I know I should know, and I suspect I will, but I don't.

  7. I did not intend my comment as a quiz of stumper, but that is Seurat, The Circus.

  8. Oh, he of Sundays in the Park with George fame. I didn't know he was big into circuses, but then I really didn't know all that much about him in the first place.

  9. You might have got it had you given the picture more than a desultory glance. Had you blown it up, you might have noticed the dots of color out of which Seurat built the painting, his trademark.

    My v-word is quite nice, the sort of thing butchers might have at their annual conventions: meatings.

  10. "meatings" is fantastic. Yes, a little more evidence of pointillism and I would have had at least a fighting chance at getting it right.

  11. Well, that's one sort of meating that could be described as a shambles.