The Finest Puncheon

Page 3 of 9

Figure 3


Fort Clatsop, Replica

staight-hewn boards covering a log hut

Photo ©2009 by Kristopher Townsend, used with permission

Day 6—December 15 was spent by Gass and two others in "fixing and finishing the quarters of the Commanding Officers," while two other men were "preparing puncheons for covering the huts."

Puncheon or punchin? Puncheon has been a wiggly word all its long life. From the mid-14th century on, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, it denoted a tool for 1) punching holes, 2) making dies for coins, or 3) casting printers' type. Three hundred years passed, and somehow it turned into the name for a small split log laid with the flat side up as paving material for a road or walkway. For Patrick Gass it was either a split log or a thin plank split from a larger log. But Noah Webster, in his first dictionary (New Haven, Connecticut, 1806), retained the old definition, simplified: "a tool to make a hole" and also, incongruously, as "a large cask." Meanwhile, "a short timber for supporting weights" was termed a "punchin." One suspects that Webster's own pet peeves—regional, local or even household speech and spelling habits, and provincial neologisms—were responsible for the lexical mess.