pell-mell

“Riot in London” has taken on a bit of a different air of late. Time was when it might have led me to imagine a multiplicity of pale males (pommies all) going pell-mell in Pall Mall with pall-mall balls and mallets to pelt and maul opponents – publicans, perhaps? – before pulling back to mill about and drink Pimm’s.

Last year, of course, the reality of rioting left London (though perhaps not Pall Mall per se) in an appalling mess, and both punks and police were running pell-mell. But now, in the land of peameal and tall maples, we have had a riot in that other London, the one west of Toronto that people are impressed to hear you’re going to until they realize it’s not London London. Some students of Fanshawe College got drunk on St. Pat’s and had a riotous time involving burning furniture and cars and throwing things at police (I believe this is what in Australia is called a party). It became quite the melee. Some of them were dumb enough to tape themselves doing it and to talk about having done it. But most of the rest were caught on video anyway.

And Dianne Fowlie tells me that this morning she heard someone from Fanshawe College on CBC use the term pell-mell in regard to the happening. That might seem a low-frequency word, perhaps a touch on the erudite or British side, but, then, we should remember that this is a college with a very British name – Fanshawe derives originally from Featherstonehaugh, a name which some people still bear in that spelling, though they pronounce it the same as Fanshawe – and it has a student newspaper called the Interrobang, a typographical reference usually known only to geeks (it’s a combination question mark and exclamation mark).

Well, those students who sent off St. Pat’s with a bang will soon be interrogated, and they will have some explaining and appealing to do to with their parts in it. But all I need do now is explain this appealing term pell-mell.

And first: has it to do with Pall Mall? In fact, etymologically, no. The cigarette brand is named after the street in London (home to an assortment of gentlemen’s clubs), and the street – which runs west of Trafalgar Square and is pronounced “pal mal” – is so called because people used to play pall-mall on it, a game that is played with balls and mallets (indeed, pall is cognate with ball and mall is cognate with mallet), and the name of which is pronounced variously as “pel mel,” “pal mal,” and “pol mol.” Pell-mell, on the other hand, is cognate with melee. It comes to us from French; its Old French source was pesle-mesle, and that seems to have been a modified version of mesle-mesle, which was a reduplication of a word meaning “mix” or “mingle”, used in a military reference to a battle free-for-all.

So pell-mell retains its origin meaning, of a mad mixing of manic militants (adverb first, but also adjective and noun), but it also has a longstanding slightly shifted sense of “rushing headlong” – that is, one person going like a bat out of hell can also be said to be going pell-mell.

And hell’s bells, what a thrill – with risk of spill. Pedal to the metal, pell-mell – why, I declare, pell-mell seems to pedal to the metal about as Fanshawe to Featherstonehaugh, phonologically at least. But what is it about these ll words that gives them motion lines on the end? And would pill-mill seem even faster, if less out of control, than pell-mell?

Either way, our word of the day pops out of the mouth with the opening /p/ and cycles between embouchure and tongue tip like a four-stroke piston engine. That might seem orderly, but do this for me: get a few friends together and stand somewhere and each say pell-mell over and over again. I dare say it will make quite the hurly-burly. And probably someone will peer in and say “What the hell is going on here?”

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2 responses to “pell-mell

  1. Pingback: This Week’s Language Blog Roundup | Wordnik ~ all the words

  2. Earlier etymology dictionaries made the claim that “pell-mell” (Modern French: pêle-mêle) is connected with French ‘pelle’ shovel, dustpan:
    pelle à neige – snow shovel
    pelle à feu – coal shovel etc.
    Derived from Latin ‘pala’ spade, shovel.

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