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  • Paul Anthony Jones


(n.) an enclosure for rearing deer

An enclosure for rearing deer is a saltatorium, or a saltary. Etymologically, that’s a word that literally means ‘leaping-place’—and indeed such enclosures were once known as deer-leaps.

The reason for the connection to leaping is obvious, and has less to do with etymology and more to do with the unsteady bounciness of young deer. But as much as we’d like to fill this blog post with gifs of fawns lumbering around, it’s the etymology that concerns us here.

At the centre of words like saltatorium is the Latin word saltare, meaning ‘to jump’. Oddly, that’s a word that should be more familiar to us that it might seem, given that it pops up in a number of English etymologies—often, where it isn’t particularly expecting.

That root, for instance, is hiding away in the word somersault (albeit with a little influence from French, and some help from the Latin prefix supra–, meaning ‘above’ or ‘over’). It’s also the root of the words assault and assail (in the sense of leaping onto someone to subdue them). It crops up in both desultory, meaning ‘lacking a plan’ (in the sense of leaping from one task or idea to the next) and desultor (the proper name for a circus performer who jumps from horse to horse).

A salmon is literally a ‘leaping’ fish, and consilience is literally a ‘leaping together’. Insult originally mean ‘jump upon’, and from there, ultimately, ‘to assail with invective language’. To exult is literally to leap with joy or for celebration. Salacious behaviour comes from the excitable jumpiness of animals in heat. If you sally forth you do so like soldiers launching a surprise attack by leaping from a hiding place.

And the original salient point was the point in the growth of a foetus at which it would begin to twitch or move in minuscule ‘jumps’; by extension, it later came to be used of the precise starting point, or the pivotal point, in a development.

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