Feet in footage, pawns at the pawnshop

Two cartoons in my feed yesterday, both turning on ambiguities: a One Big Happy involving foot, a Mother Goose and Grimm involving pawn:



footage. The foot in footage is a measure of length. But Ruthie in #1 takes it to be the body-part foot. (These are historically related, but diverged long ago.)

Now an interesting wrinkle. The definition of footage from NOAD (2 and 3):

a length of film made for movies or television: film footage of the riot

This definition uses the noun film, for which NOAD gives only one relevant definition:

a thin flexible strip of plastic or other material coated with light-sensitive emulsion for exposure in a camera, used to produce photographs or motion pictures

The issue here is that the sense of film has shifted with changing technology, from celluloid strips to digital records, so that these days footage normally involves no strips of material measurable in inches or feet (instead, the measure of length is temporal, seconds or minutes). AHD5 recognizes this shift in its definition for footage:

recorded film or video, especially of a specified nature or subjects

where recorded film or video embraces media (of several types) for the (re)production of photographs or motion pictures.

pawn. In #2 Ralph (a Boston terrier) runs afoul of an ambiguity in pawn, in this case involving two lexical items that have absolutely nothing to do with one another historically.

First, the noun pawn, as in chess. From NOAD2:

a chess piece of the smallest size and value; [by metaphorical extension] a person used by others for their own purposes. ORIGIN late Middle English: from Anglo-Norman French poun, from medieval Latin pedo, pedon– ‘foot soldier,’ from Latin pes, ped– ‘foot.’ Compare with peon.

So the name of the chess piece is itself a metaphorical extension: the pawn in chess is like a foot soldier.

And then the verb pawn, as in the compounds pawn shop (or pawnshop) and pawnbroker. again from NOAD2:

verb pawn: deposit (an object) with a pawnbroker as security for money lent. ORIGIN late 15th cent. (as a noun): from Old French pan ‘pledge, security,’ of West Germanic origin; related to Dutch pand and German Pfand [‘pledge, security, deposit (as on bottles)’].

noun pawnshop: a pawnbroker’s shop, especially one where unredeemed items are sold to the public.

Bonus in #2: rook. Again, one use in chess, another outside of the game, with no historical connection. From NOAD2:

noun rook: a chess piece, typically with its top in the shape of a battlement, that can move in any direction along a rank or file on which it stands… See also castle. ORIGIN Middle English: from Old French rock, based on Arabic ruḵḵ (of which the sense remains uncertain).

But: noun rook: a gregarious Eurasian crow with black plumage and a bare face, nesting in colonies in treetops [Corvus frugilegus, family Corvidae]; verb rook [with obj.] informal: take money from (someone) by cheating, defrauding, or overcharging them. ORIGIN Old English hrōc, probably imitative and of Germanic origin; related to Dutch roek.

Green’s Dictionary of Slang has a fuller account for the verb, which begins with a UK underground slang usage ‘a cheat or a swindler’ (“from the allegedly larcenious character of the bird”), with a 1577 first cite. Then a later noun sense ‘a swindle’ (Ralph’s usage in the third panel of #2 and the noun sense most familiar to me), first attested in 1934. Green’s derives the verb ‘to cheat, to swindle, to steal’ (first cite in 1590) from the earlier noun.


Leave a Reply

%d bloggers like this: