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Wednesday, 15 July 2015

A drop in the bucket

A bucket of a type no longer seen.
The derivation of bucket would seem to be simple enough, coming from the Old French buket, which was a washing tub or perhaps from the Old English bĂșc, which was a pail.

In most cases, the bucket seems to have been used in a well, and in The Knight's Tale, Chaucer writes of Arcite going "into a studie" and then being "Now up, now doun, as boket in a welle".

Equally, in King John, Shakespeare has Philip the Bastard speak of diving "like buckets in concealed wells" when he speaks of hiding from wrath. In Richard II, Shakespeare returns to the well when Richard bemoans his fate to Bolingbroke, who is soon to have him killed, and take the throne:

Now is this golden crown like a deep well
That owes two buckets, filling one another;
The emptier ever dancing in the air,

Then there is the other down bucket, unseen, and full of water.

That bucket down and full of tears am I,
Drinking my griefs, whilst you mount up on high.

Falstaff may have had a different sort of bucket in mind, though, when he declared his wish for small lively men:

Here's Wart; you see what a ragged appearance it is. 'A shall charge you and discharge you with the motion of a pewterer's hammer, come off and on swifter than he that gibbets on the brewer's bucket.

Such men, explains Falstaff, will be hard to hit in the field of battle.

The reference to the action of the pewterer's hammer gives us the hint we need that Falstaff is probably looking for a person who is continually active like the person on the end of a trebuchet, an ancient device that the Egyptians called a shadoof. This brewer's trebuchet did indeed have a bucket on the end of it, because it was used to raise water from a river into a brewery.

There is an extra hint in the man's name, 'Wart', a play on the brewer's wort. Also called a sweep, some people think the French trebuchet used in this way became a tree bucket, and then just a bucket, since, after all, that was what was on the end of the sweep.

These days, pails are no more, but in Shakespeare's time, it seems as though the bucket never left the well. Jack and Jill went to fetch a pail of water, not a bucket, and milk travelled the same way:

When icicles hang by the wall,
And Dick the shepherd blows his nail,
And Tom bears logs into the hall,
And milk comes frozen home in pail,

Yet in The Tempest, Trinculo moans about the weather, observing that "Yond same cloud cannot choose but fall by pailfuls", where we would say that it was about to bucket down. The pail is of uncertain origin, and seems to have evolved by slow stages from a pan of some kind, but it most definitely had a carrying handle.

The bucket, on the other hand, could also be a socket made of leather for a whip or a lance, and the containers on a conveyer belt are referred to as buckets, and a bucket-wheel has a series of buckets on the outside, and is used like a water-wheel in reverse, to raise water to a higher level. A handle was once unimportant on a bucket, but now it is essential, for the bucket has replaced the pail.

We bucket along when we are travelling at a good pace, and we give somebody a good bucketing when we figuratively tip a bucket of something unpleasant over them. The OED suggests that "Buckets are now chiefly of wood", but these days, few people under 30 would ever have seen a bucket made of anything other than plastic, and as for the pail, well, I'm afraid it's a word that has kicked the bucket.

Then again, when you look at the changes that happen in our language in even one lifetime, that is surely no more than a drop in a bucket?

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