A Plumb Interesting Set of Words

By Maeve Maddox

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When I saw the following passage on the Simon Schuster site, I was plumb surprised:

When twelve-year-old Jamie Dexter’s brother joins the Army and is sent to Vietnam, Jamie is plum thrilled.

I expect one of the last major publishers to get their spellings right.

The words plum and plumb are homophones, but not synonyms.

Admittedly, in the Middle Ages, the spellings hadn’t quite settled down, but for the past couple of centuries, the different spellings have become established and denote different meanings.

Plum
Literally, the word plum refers to the fruit of Prunus domestica. From the fruit, it has acquired the meaning of a purple or reddish color.

Figuratively, plum refers to any desirable thing, the pick of the crop.

But it’s unclear whether Frank could still convince Patrick to get the plum job.

He’s got a safe House seat and a plum assignment on the Appropriations Committee

In the eighteenth century, plum was slang for the sum of £100,000 or a fortune. A more recent slang use, usually in the plural, denotes the testicles.

Levy wouldn’t know a quality player if he jumped up and kicked him in the plums.

From plum comes the adjective plummy, which can also be used to describe something desirable, as a plummy job.

Plummy is also used to describe a type of voice or speech: “mellow, deep resonant, and carefully articulated in a way associated with the educated English upper classes.” (OED).

The two-decade-old clip of a plummy-voiced boy [Rishi Sunak] admitting the limits of his social circle raised the ire of the British public . . .

The connection of speech with plum? Some think that such speakers sound as if they are talking around a plum in the mouth.

Plumb
The word plumb can function as a noun, an adjective, and an adverb.

To begin with, plumb meant lead. The Latin word for lead is plumbum. (That’s why the chemical symbol for lead is Pb.)

A plumb bob is a piece of lead intended to be hung from a plumb line.

A plumb line is a string with a weight attached. It is used in carpentry to establish the vertical. Things can be “in plumb” or “out of plumb,” according to whether they are perfectly vertical or not.

The early skyscrapers used heavy plumb-bobs hung on wire in their elevator shafts.

The chalked plumb line varieties will snap and leave a nice neat line for you.

The noun plumb, meaning “exactly in alignment” led to the uses of plumb to mean “completely, absolutely.” It is this definition that brings us back to Jamie in the Simon and Schuster quotation. Little Jamie was “plumb thrilled.”

Here are another two examples of plumb to mean completely:

Judge Crater disappeared in August, plumb vanished from the middle of Manhattan.

I discovered that the other eggs she was setting on were plumb ruined so it was the right decision.

Plumb as a verb
Plumb lines were once used to measure the depth of water. To plumb is “to measure the depth of.”

The verb is used figuratively.

New research to plumb the mysteries of mitochondria.

Positive Psychology prods us to plumb the deepest fonts of satisfaction in life.

Plumbago
This word labels two very different things.

The “lead” in your pencil is plumbago, i.e., graphite.

And there’s a shrub popular in Florida that is called plumbago.

The lead connection with graphite is plain enough, but why would a plant have such a name?

Turns out that the plant was known to Pliny the Elder (CE 23-79). Something about it reminded him of lead—perhaps its blue flowers—so he called it plumbago, Latin for “resembling lead.” Another name for the plant is “leadwort.”

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