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19 Jan 2018

Bridging the gap: Pontitecture in action (Wix) 


This week, French President Emmanuel Macron has been in the UK for two days of talks with Prime Minister Theresa May. In the midst of which, Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson stepped forward and proposed that Britain and France now get along so well that we should build a road bridge across the English Channel


On the one hand, Johnson’s ridiculous suggestion of bridging the busiest shipping lane in the world was just the kind of pointless, throwaway political gesture that we would expect from someone in pointless, throwaway position like, er, Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs. But on the other hand, it was a shrewd and precisely timed bit of propaganda. Either way, it reminds us of a word that the Oxford English Dictionary, rather fittingly, marks as “obsolete” and “nonsense”: pontitecture is the building of bridges.  


The word pontitecture was coined by a nineteenth-century Scottish scholar and businessman named Andrew Ure in 1853. “There is perhaps no other form of pontitecture,” Ure wrote in his Dictionary of Arts, Manufactures & Mines, “which can compete with the wrought-iron girder when the clear space exceeds 70 feet.” Well, quite.


The OED flags Ure’s word as “obsolete” as it never caught on, and Ure’s use of it in his dictionary is its only record. It flags it as “nonsense” likely because it represents a fairly unsubtle blend of pons, the Latin word for “bridge”, and the existing word architecture (which itself derives via France and Latin from Greek words meaning “chief”, arkhon, and “builder”, tekton). That makes pontitecture an unlikely etymological cousin of pontiff—the title held by the Pope—which literally means “bridge-maker”. 



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