- Paul Anthony Jones
(n.) the act of breaking down a task into smaller, more manageable sections
Cultellation was originally the name of a process whereby a height or distance—often over difficult terrain, like the distance to the peak of a mountain—could be measured not in one single stroke, but in a series of smaller, more manageable sections. To do so, a length of marked tape or chain would be held out horizontally, with a weighted blade or point hanging perpendicularly on a second chain beneath it, striking a point on the ground below.
These two measurements—the horizontal and the vertical—would then be recorded, and the process repeated once more from the point on the earth struck by the dangling blade. A second set of measurements would then be recorded, then a third and fourth, and so on, until the entire distance had been covered in these incremental steps.
Adding together all of the individual horizontal measurements would ultimately give the total distance covered; if so required, adding together all the perpendicular lengths measured by the blade would give the total of descent.
In fact, it is this dangling blade (as well as perhaps the notion of ‘slicing’ the longer distance into smaller pieces) that hints at the word’s origins in cultellus, a Latin word for a small knife.
The kinds of problems we have on our proverbial plates today, admittedly, aren’t likely to be the same as those faced by seventeenth century surveyors, of course. But, notably, there is more to this word than meets the eye.
Borrowed into English from French, the word cultellation first appeared in the language in this original, strictly practical sense in the mid sixteenth century. Over time, however, it began to be used more loosely, so that by the mid 1700s it had come to refer more generally to the solving of any intricate or difficult problem piecemeal—that is, by breaking it down into several smaller, more manageable, and more readily resolvable constituent parts.
From those fairly dreary beginnings, ultimately, cultellation has become a word to remind us that when we are overwhelmed with worries or chores—or, indeed, one single seemingly impenetrable task—breaking down our problems into smaller sections can make them more wieldy, less daunting, and more manageable overall.