Pungo pungere pupugi punctum

Students can usefully be reminded of the process of language whereby a word starts with a physical meaning, and soon, by human imagination, takes on metaphorical uses. They need also to note that this process, and metaphor in general, is not essentially a literary thing, but a characteristic of common speech.

This humble Latin verb, not often encountered, is the origin of the English word point, a word seen or heard all the time, for which the Oxford Dictionary of English enumerates eighteen meanings–and that is just for its use as a noun.

In passing, it may be worth pointing out to students that the Oxford Dictionary of English (to be distinguished from the OED) is a new exercise in lexicography. First published in 1992, it has a different objective from earlier works. The preface to the first edition explains that it is ‘written on new principles… very much a new departure… a dictionary of current English, and it is informed by currently available evidence and current thinking about language and cognition. It is an inventory of the words and meanings of present-day English, both those in actual use and those found in the literature of the past.’

It is by far the largest book here on our shelves, and it may be recommended for what it is: an inventory, compiled with extraordinary skill and effort, which gives an overview of usages. It can be used by the student of philology as a supplement to the more historically based OED, or perhaps as a starting point.

The Latin word pungere first means to prick. It comes to mean pierce, penetrate, sting, vex, grieve, annoy; then its noun punctum means a small hole or puncture, and then a point or small spot (as on dice), a dot, and later an instant or moment of time.

The Oxford Dictionary of English lists the current meanings of point. Among them are the sharp end of a tool or weapon, a spot on a map, a particular or decisive moment; a wall socket, a detail in a text, an argument, a mark of scoring in a game, a unit in measuring value or achievement, the directions around a compass, a piece of land jutting into the sea, a junction of railway lines, a position in cricket, an electrical contact, a straight run in hunting, an advantage or purpose, a distinctive feature, the verge or brink of doing something… and so forth: and it adds a list of phrases in common use.

This English word, which comes via Norman French, has a history that creates a very long entry in the OED—which lists also its obsolete usages. Its uses as a verb also repay viewing.