Pelt — a word with many meanings

An October 26 headline in the Sun, “Beaver pelted to death with a chair,” caused me to sit up and take notice. The ensuing story told us, “A beaver was beaten to death with a chair,” in Wolseley, Saskatchewan.

I am pretty sure that when most of us think of pelting, we think of hurling things. Few of us imagine beating a creature with a chair or other object to be pelting. Of course, I looked it up.

The Sun’s usage is correct if unusual.

In defining the verb, “to pelt,” the OED supplies the first meaning as, “To strike with many or repeated blows (now, with something thrown); to assail with missiles.”

What this definition tells us is that to assail with something thrown is a recent understanding of “to pelt.” To clobber with a stick, or club (or chair), is the original meaning.

Oxford doesn’t suggest “to pelt” as the Sun used it is obsolete, although it isn’t usually employed that way today. In fact, this is the only time I’ve ever encountered such usage.

To pelt, in its meaning of “to strike,” has been in English since 1500. Its origin is unknown.

By 1658, pelt was already used figuratively in the sense of assailing someone with reproaches — that is, to throw out angry words.

A now obsolete meaning is, “an outburst of temper or rage.” Pelt was not used in reference to the beating down of rain, snow, or hail until 1862.

A further obscure meaning of this word is “rubbish; rags; waste.” This understanding of pelt was lost years ago. These days, it is found only in a few English dialects.

Pellet, meaning any small spherical body used as a missile, grew out of pelt. Pellet is now mainly applied to small shot like BB ammunition. Even so, a pellet is defined as, “a small, solid or densely packed ball or mass, as of bread, wax, or medicine.” The world, “pill,” does not originate in pellet.

Unrelated to pelt in the sense we’ve been discussing, is pelt meaning the skin of a beast. Although both pelts came into English vocabulary about the same time, the early 1500s, their origins haven’t been connected.

Pelt, re animal hide, came from the Old French, pellet (animal skin). Some researchers think this pelt is a back-formation from peltry, a Late Middle English term for undressed animal skins.

Back-formation is a grammatical term meaning the creation of a word from an already existent word. The new word is formed by removing rather than by adding an element. Laze from lazy is an example.

Pelt, as it applies to animal hide, has five meanings. These range from the hide of a goat or a sheep where the short wool is still on the skin (1562), to the dead quarry of a hawk (1615), to untanned sheepskin used to form a printer’s inkpad (1683).

The surname, Pelletier, as in Jean Pelletier (1936-2009), mayor of Quebec City for 12 years, originated in Normandy where it referred to a furrier. Pelletiers were among the original French settlers in Canada, having arrived as early as 1641.