quincunx

This word is so succulent I can scarce believe I haven’t done a tasting of it before. Given my occasional inadvertent retastings, you might expect to have spotted it here five times already. But no dice. Well, my quidnunc, today you get your quincunx, and cuncti simus concanentes.*

You may think this a novel word, but it is no new coinage. Indeed, though it is the title of a well-known recent novel by Charles Palliser (I’m told it’s very good), it comes from an old Latin coin. And it has since then acquired a phalanx of uses.

Let us start at the origin. Latin for ‘five’ is quinque; Latin for ‘twelfth’ is uncia (source of our word ounce), and uncia in Roman coinage was a twelfth piece of an as, as it happens – an as was the standard bronze coin. Put the two together and you get quincunx, the coin worth five twelfths. It was marked with five dots, and often the five dots were in the pattern we now associate with the 5 side on a die: ⚄ (box not included). Ergo, it is like the symbol for “therefore” ∴ and the same again inverted (why? “because”: ∵) and meeting in the middle at the tips. What’s it there for? Because! Connect the dots.

The pattern is in many places if we wish to find it. We may plant trees in this formation, or arrange heraldic patterns, or design buildings, or draw maps, or deploy legionaries into battle, or form the engines on a rocket, or get a tattoo (Thomas Edison had a quincunx tattooed on his forearm). Mark your ballot with a cross in a box and the vertices are in a quincuncial arrangement.

It is thus a surprise and a pity that we do not see the word more often; I can go through twelve fifths of Scotch (at no more than an ounce a day) between hearing it and hearing it again. Perhaps people delight in it so much they are a little afraid to put their tongues to it? Look, it uses the mouth so well: it starts with a kiss of the lips and a release at the velum, /kw/, and then it feints toward the tip but stays back, twice a nasal and crisp stop /ŋk/ before at last softly hissing with the licking tip /s/. The vowels move, but gently: they are the first sounds of “in” and “under.” It is so crisp and sweet, like biting a red delicious – or a slice of quince.

And the spelling! There are two cups and two caps, u and n and again and again, and i c as well. And there are our two craziest letters, q and x; the first is incomplete without u, and the second is two sounds lying together as one, like the crossed line segments that make it x – forming, at their tips and intersection, the fulfillment of the sense itself: a quincunx.

*Latin for ‘let us sing together’

One response to “quincunx

  1. It surprises me that a word-taster such as yourself wouldn’t mention in connection with the Quincunx the famed “Garden of Cyrus” essay by Sir Thomas Browne, – not only is the essay a masterpiece by a master of prose, but Browne was a font of font of fine words himself: words like “suicide” and “ambidextrous” and “electricity”, as well as less frequently encountered wonders like “canorous” and “balneation.” He’s apparently number 70 in the OED’s top cited sources for words, and someone well worth investigating in the search for new lexical flavors.

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