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Q From Mark Raymond in Australia: Are the words colon, meaning a part of the bowel, and colon, meaning a punctuation mark, related to each other, and if so, how?

A They’re not closely connected. They come from two Greek words that are very similar in sound and spelling, both of which I have to transliterate as kolon because I can’t reproduce the accents here.

One of the pair literally meant a limb, an arm or leg. It was also used figuratively for a section of a sentence — a clause or a number of clauses — that were written as one line and treated as a unit of rhythm. As a result, it would have a complete number of metrical feet in it (feet, limbs, it’s all the same). We borrowed it via Latin and began to apply it to the mark that broke prose into sections for chanting in church. Later, it referred to a punctuation mark that similarly divided up the blocks of a sentence into independent or free-standing clauses.

The other colon was borrowed into medical English via Latin from the similar Greek word that principally meant food or meat, but which could also refer to the large intestine.

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Copyright © Michael Quinion, 1996–. All rights reserved.
Page created 5 Feb. 2000

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The English language is forever changing. New words appear; old ones fall out of use or alter their meanings. World Wide Words tries to record at least a part of this shifting wordscape by featuring new words, word histories, words in the news, and the curiosities of native English speech.

World Wide Words is copyright © Michael Quinion, 1996–. All rights reserved.
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Last modified: 5 February 2000.