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A man balances on a beach erosion barrier. (Ron Chapple Stock/Getty Images/Ron Chapple Studios)
A man balances on a beach erosion barrier. (Ron Chapple Stock/Getty Images/Ron Chapple Studios)

Warren Clements

The difference a vowel can make Add to ...

Reader David Antscherl was startled to read in these pages of groins protecting shores from erosion in England’s Kent County. The wooden beams, the travel writer said, are “designed to stop the harbour from silting up, and to keep the stone-strewn shore from slipping into the sea. These groins also serve as handy breakers from the wind....”

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Since most of us use clothes to keep the wind off our groin – that vulnerable depression between belly and upper thigh – the image is a little confusing. It’s as if hundreds of swimmers were conscripted to sit on the shore using their outstretched legs to block the migration of silt.

Groin is indeed the accepted U.S. spelling for those erosion guards. However, as Antscherl notes, the British spelling is groyne, and has been since the word entered the language in the 1500s. It may have got its name by association with a pig’s snout, which had been called a groin since the 1300s. Old French had used groign (snout) figuratively for a projection of rock.

The body’s groin entered English by 1400 as grynde or grinde, and acquired its “groin” spelling by the late 1500s. One version is that it sounded like groin, as used for the snout. Another is that people associated it with loin, a word that had been around since the 1300s but which the Bible, in translations by William Tyndale and Myles Coverdale, had used in the early 1500s as a synonym for one’s private parts.

Reader Andrew Buc noticed an odd phrase in a Toronto Star report on independent bookseller Nicholas Hoare. Hoare said he would close his store in Ottawa (and in Montreal, but not in Toronto) because his landlord there had demanded much more money. “The only reason we’re closing is a swinging increase in rent. We would have renewed.”

Although England “swings like a pendulum do,” to quote tunesmith Roger Miller, it seems unlikely that an increase would swing that way. Buc writes: “Since Mr. Hoare is English, I’m guessing that he said a swingeing, not swinging, increase in rent.”

Both swing and swinge (or swenge) began in Old English (of Germanic origins) with the same meaning: to beat or flog. Explorer C.M. Doughty wrote in Travels in Arabia Deserta in 1888, “I swinged him soundly in a moment and made all his back smart.”

In the 1300s, the element of flogging was joined by the striking of a blow with a sword, and then by the waving about of that sword. That led by 1545 to the more familiar sense of swing, of something moving back and forth.

The adjective swingeing, as in a swingeing increase in rent, was in use by 1592 in the sense of huge or immense. Charles Dickens wrote in his 1843-44 novel Martin Chuzzlewit of making “a swingeing profit.”

Now I must indulge in a moment of self-swingeing. In a recent column, I referred to The Orillia Packet & Times as the Times & Packet. My apologies to that newspaper. As penance, I offer a limerick: Orillia’s Packet & Times/ Announced each edition with chimes./ They made such a racket,/ The Times and the Packet/ Replaced the cacoph’ny with mimes.

Finally, I was amused to see a car bearing an Ontario vanity licence plate that was capable of being read two ways.

The plate says, “Pas de2.” If you read the 2 as French, the message is pas de deux, a dance with two participants. If you read the 2 the English way, the result is pas de two, which sounds like the French expression pas de tout – not at all.

The lyrics of the classic song I Won’t Dance may marry the two senses: “I won’t dance. Don’t ask me.” Is the plate’s owner a dancer, a nihilist or a linguist?

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