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shameless pleading

Bunting

Happy Purple Kangaroo Day, infidels. Have a groatcake.

Dear Word Detective: We do not have a flag stand at our house, so, for Memorial Day, we hung some red, white and blue bunting from a patio railing. I then began to wonder about the term “bunting.” My abridged Webster’s II has the dreaded “origin unknown,” so I thought to look at the definitions of “bunt” and found one definition to be the midsection of a sail or the sagging middle of a fishing net. This seems to me to describe most bunting, which is swatches of cloth not in the regular, rectangular shape of a flag. Can you confirm or deny my suspicion that this is the source of “bunting” for flag-like drapes or banners? — Martin Celusnak.

Bunting is cool. We have a flag we put out on such occasions, but otherwise holiday house decorations are a sore point with me. I have no problem with Christmas lights, which we traditionally put up a few days before the day. But in recent years our neighbors have taken to lighting up their gutters to Clark Griswold-level excess weeks in advance of every conceivable occasion. Lighted eggs and bunnies for Easter, strings of phosphorescent miniature jack o’lanterns for Halloween, pink pagan love emblems for Valentines Day, even tiny glowing OSU Buckeye helmets for every tiny glowing game day. What I need is something truly bizarre, perhaps flashing day-glo purple kangaroos, that I can plug in on same random evening in March and drive all these people nuts.

There are actually several “buntings” in English,The oldest, dating back to the 14th century, is “bunting” as the name of a lark-like bird, as well as similar birds of other families that are in some fashion reminiscent of real buntings. In a rather abrupt disconnect from all this birding, “bunting” popped up in the 19th century as a term for a kind of shrimp. More familiar, perhaps, is the use of this “bunting” as a term of endearment for infants as well as the name of a kind of snug sleeping bag (“baby bunting”) for infants. All of these “buntings” are, apparently, based on the Scots word “buntin,” meaning “short and plump.”

The “bunting” to which you refer in your hunch, that of “a bulging or swelling of a sail or fishing net,” appeared in the late 17th century and comes from the verb “to bunt,” meaning “to furl a sail in the middle” or “to swell” like a partly furled sail. This came in turn from the noun “bunt,” meaning a pouched part of something, which is, unfortunately of unknown origin.

It is possible that this “pouched” or “sagging” kind of “bunting” influenced the use of “bunting” to mean “strips of cloth in flag colors used as draperies or decorations on patriotic or festive occasions,” but most authorities believe that the roots of “bunting” in this sense lie in a yet another, completely unrelated, “bunting.”

The initial meaning of the flag-colored “bunting,” when it first appeared in print in the mid-18th century, was “light cotton or woolen cloth used to make flags and banners.” This kind of cloth was of a very open weave, and apparently called “bunting” because it was similar to loosely-woven cloth used to sift grain or meal. The action of sifting grain had been known as “bunting” since the 14th century, and a contraption for sifting meal and grain had been known as a “bunt,” which may have simply been a form of the older word “bolt” (from the Old French “bulter”) for the same kind of sifting process. So the cloth routinely used to make flags was called “bunting” because it was similar to the cloth used to sift grain and meal. And when the same cloth was used for decorative, flag-themed draperies or streamers, it made sense to call those “bunting.”

Incidentally, since someone is bound to ask, none of these “bunts” and “buntings” have anything to do with “bunting” in baseball, where the batter allows the ball to hit the bat without swinging it. That “bunt” is probably an alteration of the verb “to butt,” meaning to strike with the head as goats do.

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