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Colon

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.

Page created 5 Feb. 2000

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Last modified: 5 February 2000.