One of the volumes in my growing collection of books on words, grammar, and language is Dictionary of Word Origins: A History of the Words, Expressions, and Clichés We Use, by Jordan Almond. It’s a bit of an odd work. Many of the expressions in it I have never heard before, even though they’re referred to as if they’re the most commonly occurring thing you could imagine. For example, he asks, “Where did the expression ‘he fights like King John of Bohemia’ come from?” A number of Internet sources call this an “obsolescent idiom,” yet the book was copyrighted in 1985. The typeface and layout even look a little old-fashioned. I wonder what’s up with this mystery tome.
And don’t you wonder whether “Jordan Almond” is an alias? One of the expressions discussed in the book is just that. He asks, “Has the name ‘Jordan Almond’ anything to do with the River Jordan?” (No.) In the answer, he doesn’t even refer to the fact that this is also supposedly the author’s name.
Despite my puzzlement, from time to time I will flip through the book for a bit of entertainment. I don’t believe I’ve ever picked it up and found an answer when I was seeking for one, but I enjoy it for what it is.
Today, I focused in on “point blank,” the phrase we use to describe a shot taken from a very short distance away. This expression comes from French. The center of a target was once a small white (blanc) spot. Point means “aim,” so point blank means to aim at the center of the target. Implied is that this is done from a distance so close you can’t help but get a bull’s eye.
Blanco also means the center of the target in Spanish, but “point blank” is the really interesting thing I want to tell you about. The translation is a quemarropa—literally, “at clothes burning” distance. That singe in your shirt around the bullet hole is what you get if you’re shot a quemarropa. I learned this expression in an interpreter training, but unfortunately (fortunately?) I have never gotten to use it in the courtroom.