The Word The Internet Didn’t Know

Not really.

The word parbunkells got a flurry of press coverage starting a few days ago, such as this piece from Popular Mechanics. Artist Julia Weist rented a billboard in Queens to feature the word, claiming that it was a forgotten seventeenth-century word that did not appear on the internet. Gizmodo declared the word to be “dead to the digital world—and to almost every living person.” Weist was trying to make a point about how information is shared over the internet, telling Gizmodo:

The word has also become a shortcut to a portrait of meaning making and content production on the Internet, both human and non-human, in the sense that you can search for it and see spools of information, reaction, conversation, re-context- ualization and response. In that sense it’s all or nothing, and now that word has been used, the more usage the better.

But she chose a bad example to make her point, and the mainstream media covering the story got a lot wrong. 

The story is kind of an object lesson in not making claims until you’ve done some research or at least spoken to experts in the field. Parbunkells, or parbuckle as it is more usually spelled now, is not a forgotten word. It does have a life of its own on the internet and in meatspace. It’s even in the OED. And if you Google parbunkell, the search engine offers help by asking, “Did you mean parbuckle?” So the word, while rare, wasn’t exactly hiding. Two minutes of poking about would have turned it up.

The OED defines the word as, “a rope, cable, etc., arranged like a sling, used to raise or lower heavy objects vertically.” Popular Mechanics and many of the mainstream outlets that reported the story gave its definition as the vague, “coming together through the binding of two ropes,” proof that writing a good definition is an acquired skill. The word, used mainly in naval and maritime jargon, is attested to as early as 1625, and the early spellings are parbunkel or parbuncle. The word’s origin is uncertain. It may be a borrowing of a Scandinavian term. The par- element is related to pair. The -bunkel is the uncertain bit. In the seventeenth century the spelling parbuckle began to appear, a folk etymology or eggcorn created out of confusion with buckle. The parbuckle spelling quickly became the standard.

The word is first recorded in 1625 in Henry Mainwaring’s Nomenclator Navalis:

A Parbuncle is a rape which is used in ye nature of a paire of Slings.

It also appears in John Smith’s 1627 A Sea Grammar, which is evidently where Wiest found it. Mainwaring’s book exists as a manuscript in the British Library, but has been reprinted at various times over the centuries. Smith’s book is available via Early English Books Online.

The word is still in use. The OED has a citation from as late as 1997 in the Daily Telegraph.

Gizmodo asks, “It’s easy to fall into the trapping of thinking the internet knows everything, but it doesn’t. Oddities like this makes you wonder how much other knowledge is lying on dusty shelves, waiting to be rediscovered.” To which I respond, does Gizmodo know how to use the internet?

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