Plumber and Related Words

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This post was triggered by the misspelling of the word plumber in the following passage:

Your plummer can be as creative or more than your favorite rock star or painter… What happens in his head when he needs to find a way to solve your unique sink problem is the same process that takes place in a musician’s head…

The b in plumber derives from the fact that, until fairly recently, water pipes were manufactured of lead.

The symbol for lead in the Periodic Table of Elements is Pb. The symbol derives from the Latin word for lead: plumbum.

Around 1100, a “plumber” was a worker in any sort of lead. In the 19th century the word acquired the meaning “workman who installs pipes and fittings.” The Nixon administration, concerned about information “leaks,” created a special investigative unit called the Plumbers.

A “plumb line” (also called a plumb-bob or a plummet) is a piece of lead hung on a string. Builders use plumb lines to gauge a vertical line.

As a verb, plumb has various meanings. To “plumb the depths” is to measure the depth of water by dropping a weighted line of a known length. Figuratively it means to experience something deeply. The writer plumbed the depths of despair. To plumb a chimney or other object under construction means to adjust or test it to be sure it’s straight.

Three other words that derive from the Latin word for lead are plummet, plunge, and aplomb.

Besides being a synonym for a plumb line, plummet can be used as a verb. One sense is “to fathom, to take soundings.” Its more common use is with the meaning “to fall rapidly.” Plummet is a good word to describe a precipitate and heavy fall.

Florida tomato prices plummet, consumers win

Daily stress and worry plummet after age 50

A fireman and a policeman held the ends of a horse blanket to try to catch the next falling girl, but the blanket split in half as the body plummeted right through and hit the pavement.

The verb plunge comes from Vulgar Latin plumbicare, “to heave the lead.” Like plummet, the word suggests a heavy weight falling in a straight direction or forceful movement into something or in a downward direction, often into water. The expression “to take the plunge” means “to commit oneself.” The fashion term “plunging neckline” is documented from 1949.

So saying, Nigel, with the light, of adventure gleaming in his joyous eyes, drew his sword and plunged swiftly into the forest.

In one of the most dizzying half-hours in stock market history, the Dow plunged nearly 1,000 points

Dome plunged deep into sea to cap U.S. oil leak

The noun aplomb means “confidence.” The connection to the lead/plumb line idea is that a confident, assured person stands up straight.

By September 10, 2001, Rudolph Giuliani seemed to have worn out his welcome as Mayor of New York, but the sorrier aspects of his two terms of office were all but wiped from collective memory by his aplomb amidst the chaos of 9/11.

He [Ellis R. Dungan] transcended barriers with aplomb

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8 thoughts on “Plumber and Related Words”

  1. ‘Plumb/er, etc.’ is interesting as being one of a group of words with wholly or partly unnecessary letters. the word came into English in t he late Middle English period. ‘Plum, plumb, plumbe’ occur from the 15th century. The root is Late Latin ‘plumba’ via the Old French ‘plombe, plomme, plommier’. Interestingly the ‘b’ still hasn’t got into ‘plummet’.
    Even more unnecessary is the ‘c’ in ‘scissors’ (>Middle English ‘sissoures’, > Old French ‘cissoires’ > Latin ‘cisoria’). The ‘c’ in our spelling crept in from scholars associating the word with the Latin ‘scindere’ = ‘to cut’.
    ‘Scythe’ is another example (> Old English ‘siđe’). Again scholars falsely related it to Latin ‘scindere’.
    Then there is the ‘b’ in ‘debt’ and ‘doubt’. The first was happily ‘dette’ for centuries and ‘doubt’ was ‘doute’ (> Middle French ‘douter’), till the scholars had to remind us of the ultimate Latin origin of the words.
    And why do we have to have a silent ‘h’ in ‘school’? Our forefathers didn’t. There are in fact two words here. 1. As a place of learning > OE ‘scolu’ > Latin/Greek ‘schola’. 2. Meaning ‘ a troop, group’, > OE scolu’ ‘a troop’, from a root meaning ‘to divide’.
    Arguably Webster wasn’t thorough enough. George Bernard Shaw would have agreed.

  2. In the post entitled, “Plumber and Related Words,” the element symbol for lead was given as pb. However, according to the Periodic Table of the Elements, the correct symbol for lead is Pb (upper case P, lower case b).

  3. Interesting, thank you!
    What about words like lamb, jamb, and dumb? Where do those “mb” endings come from? Were the trailing b’s actually pronounced at some time, as in “lam-b”?

  4. Only an illiterate idiot would use “plummer” instead of “plumber”. C’mon. If you don’t know that you shouldn’t be writing anything for a living.

  5. If you’re referring to me, read again, Moo Kahn: I referred to and wrote ‘plummet’, which has no ‘b’.

  6. I don’t have a statement but a question. Please can someone tell me what the collective term is for a group of plumbers?

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