Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Word of the day: quincunx

Merriam-Webster’s Word of the Day is quincunx:

quincunx \KWIN-kunks\ noun
: an arrangement of five things in a square or rectangle with one at each corner and one in the middle

The tables were arranged in a quincunx, with the hosting family at the center table and guests at the four corners.

“As we walked along the geometric beds — many of them planted in an ancient Roman quincunx pattern — I made notes on the beautiful crops I had never grown.” — From an article by Anne Raver in the New York Times, June 30, 2010

Did you know?
As our second example sentence suggests, today’s word has its origins in ancient Rome. To the Romans, a “quincunx” was a coin whose name comes from the Latin roots “quinque,” meaning “five,” and “uncia,” meaning “one twelfth.” The weight of the coin equaled five twelfths of a libra, a unit of weight similar to our pound. The ancients used a pattern of five dots arranged like the spots on a die as a symbol for the coin, and English speakers applied the word to arrangements similar to that distinctive five-dot mark.
For a reader of English prose, quincunx means Sir Thomas Browne, whose 1658 work The Garden of Cyrus, Or The Quincunciall, Lozenge, or Net-work Plantations of the Ancients, Artificially, Naturally, Mystically Considered meditates on the quincunx and the number five as organizing principles of reality. A brief passage from the ending:
But the Quincunx of Heaven runs low, and ’tis time to close the five ports of knowledge; We are unwilling to spin out our awaking thoughts into the phantasmes of sleep, which often continueth præcogitations; making Cables of Cobwebbes and Wildernesses of handsome Groves.
[Browne glosses the “Quincunx of Heaven” as the Hyades, a group of stars “near the Horizon about midnight, at that time.”]

Other words, other works of lit
Artificer : Bandbox : Ineluctable

comments: 4

Kevin Faulkner said...

But the OED cites the word 'Quincunx' as first used as an astronomical and astrological aspect which originated from the writings of the astronomer Kepler in 1604. It was this term which Browne 'borrowed' for his quincuncial meditations.

Michael Leddy said...

I didn’t know about the astronomical/astrological meaning of the word — thanks for that. But the OED dates the first appearances of the Latin word in English as 1545 (“apparently with reference to a v-shaped figure”) and 1574 (“in the sense ‘five-twelfths of a pound or as’”). The first citation for “A pattern used for planting trees” dates from 1606. The OED cites a 1647 reference to Kepler to go the astronomical/astrological meaning, “The aspect of two planets which are at an angular distance of five-twelfths of a circle (150 degrees) apart in the sky.”

Kevin Faulkner said...

Thanks for the detail. I no longer have access to the OED easily, interesting the definitions arising from, predominately horticultural.

I wonder if the 1606 reference is from Francis Bacon. I definitely remember the Kepler reference being cited as first decade of 1600's previously though and have noted it somewhere. An interesting word for sure which is immortalized through Browne's 1658 Discourse in which evidence is given of it via 'Network plantations of the ancients, naturally, artificially, mystically considered'.

Michael Leddy said...

The 1606 reference is from Richard Knolles, a translation of Jean Bodin. No Bacon. Perhaps Kepler worked out the idea of the astronomical/astrological quincunx in the first decade of the 1600s?

I’m happy to have discovered Browne’s prose back in my student days, and I’m happy to meet a fellow reader, now, here.