Words and Expressions Related to “Palm”

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I subscribe to a daily trivia email that gives the percentage of the quiz-takers who answer the questions correctly.

The questions are rarely difficult, but I have noticed that the percentage of right answers for the more traditional “general knowledge” questions on history or literature tend to drop into the seventies, while those on rock groups and sports score in the high eighties.

Different generations, different interests.

Nevertheless, I’m always puzzled by the low scores for questions that seem to contain the answer in the question.

For example:

The leaves from which tree inspire a palmette design?


When I saw that question, I said to myself “Doh!” To me it was like Groucho’s question “Who is buried in Grant’s Tomb?”

The percentage of quiz takers that got this one right was 71%. Honest.

Palm Lore
Two common types of palm tree are palmate and pinnate.

palmate: adj. from Latin palma, “hand.” Having a shape similar to that of a hand with the fingers extended.

pinnate: adj. from Latin pinna, “feather, wing.” Resembling a feather; having parts or branches arranged on each side of a common axis.

The Latin word palma also referred to the palm fronds that symbolized victory and were bestowed upon a contest winner or victorious general. The ancient practice is reflected in the English expression to win the palm: to succeed in some endeavor.

Military decorations often feature leaves in the design. Leaves on medals awarded to U.S. service personnel tend to favor the laurel and the oak, but the RVN Gallantry Cross features a pinnate palm leaf.

Palm has numerous meanings in English.

Meanings of palm as a noun:

    the inner surface of the hand that extends from the wrist to the base of the fingers.
    the similar part of the forefoot of an animal
    a unit of length equal to either the width or the length of the hand
    the part of a glove that covers the palm
    the blade of an oar or paddle
    the flattened part of the antlers of certain animals

Meanings of palm as a verb:

    to pick up furtively
    to conceal in the palm of the hand
    to commit a basketball violation by letting the ball rest momentarily in the palm of the hand while dribbling

Like all body part words, palm has given the language many expressions.

to palm off: to dispose of or pass off by deception
to have an itching palm: to have a strong desire for money (the idea is that the palm must be scratched with coins, i.e. bribe money)

In Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar, the grief-stricken Brutus insults his friend Cassius with this expression:

Let me tell you, Cassius, you yourself
Are much condemn’d to have an itching palm,
To sell and mart your offices for gold
To undeservers.

Words that derive from palm:

palmate: adj. 1. Of an antler: in which the angles between the tines are partly filled in to form a broad flat surface 2. Of a leaf: having (esp. five) lobes, veins, or leaflets radiating from a common point like the fingers of an outspread hand; 3. Having finger-like branches, esp. diverging from a short or flattened base. 4. Of the foot of a bird or animal: webbed.

palmer: n. A pilgrim, esp. one returned from the Holy Land, traditionally carrying a palm branch or palm leaf as a mark of pilgrimage.

Chaucer mentions palmers in his prologue to The Canterbury Tales as he lists April activities:

Then folk long to go on pilgrimages
And palmers [wish] to seek foreign shores
To distant shrines famous in various lands

palmette: n. An ornamental design used on ancient pottery, and later on furniture, carpets, etc., having narrow radiating divisions and resembling a stylized palm leaf.

palmetto: n. Any of various fan palms,

palmistry: n. The art or practice of supposedly reading a person’s character or future by examining the lines and other features of the hand, especially the palm and fingers; chiromancy.

palmier: n.  In French cookery: a biscuit made of sugared puff pastry, shaped like a palm leaf.

palmitic acid: n. a solid saturated fatty acid, CH3(CH2)14COOH, found in palm oil and in many vegetable and animal fats.

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5 thoughts on “Words and Expressions Related to “Palm””

  1. When you listed palmer, I recalled the Palmer Method. I don’t recall much of it, just that I encountered the Palmer Method of teaching penmanship in school.

  2. Regarding the expression “to palm off.” I actually believe that expression is something fairly recent which has morphed from the expression “to pawn off” (e.g., worthless goods, possibly by deception). Here’s a case where more commonly heard sports vernacular (e.g., to palm off a basketball – quickly hand off) has crept in to replace a similar sounding expression, with a close, but not the same, meaning.

  3. I just checked another source which may prove me wrong by saying it’s other way around. It says – to dispose of by deception, as in: “They tried to pawn off a rebuilt computer as new” is an expression that may have originated as a corruption of palm off. So, I stand corrected, maybe……

  4. Rom. If I profane with my unworthiest hand
    This holy shrine, the gentle fine is this:
    My lips, two blushing pilgrims, ready stand
    To smooth that rough touch with a tender kiss.
    Jul. Good pilgrim, you do wrong your hand too much,
    Which mannerly devotion shows in this;
    For saints have hands that pilgrims’ hands do touch,
    And palm to palm is holy palmers’ kiss.
    Rom. Have not saints lips, and holy palmers too?
    Jul. Ay, pilgrim, lips that they must use in pray’r.
    Rom. O, then, dear saint, let lips do what hands do!
    They pray; grant thou, lest faith turn to despair.
    Jul. Saints do not move, though grant for prayers’ sake.
    Rom. Then move not while my prayer’s effect I take.
    Thus from my lips, by thine my sin is purg’d. [Kisses her.]
    Jul. Then have my lips the sin that they have took.
    Rom. Sin from my lips? O trespass sweetly urg’d!
    Give me my sin again. [kisses her]

    Shakespeare: Romeo and Juliet Act I scene V

  5. Roberta B.,
    Both expressions have been around for awhile.

    “Palm on” with our meaning “palm off” is recorded in 1679. “Palm off” with that sense is recorded in 1822.

    “Pawn upon” is recorded in 1763 with the meaning “pass off by trickery.” “Pawn off” with that sense is recorded from 1832.

    I don’t see why the two couldn’t have been separate and unrelated coinages.

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