PLUMMET : to plunge


If we’ve heard it once, we’ve heard it dozens of times over the past few weeks.

“The temperature is going to plummet overnight.”

There is no question in any one’s mind (in New England at least) as to what the meteorologist is talking about.   We have had several weeks of uncharacteristic cold and snow which has crippled us in the Northeast.  Temperatures have been in the teens (on good days) and the wind chill temperature has been around zero or below zero F. when we get up in the morning.  When we went to bed it may have been 18, but when we woke up in the morning it was 5 below.  The temperature has plummeted.

That is to say, the temperature has plunged from a reasonably cold level to an unreasonably uncomfortable frigid level.

Okay, so where does that word plummet come from?  We use it so casually, but am I the only one that doesn’t have a clue as to why we use that word?   I went to the books (and internet) to find out the answer to my question.

It turns out that the word plummet is a Middle English derivative of the word plumb.  I’ve referred to this word a number of times in previous blogs, but let me remind you.   A plumb is a tool used by a carpenter or paper-hanger to get a “true” line from which to measure.   If hanging wallpaper, for instance, you would pick a point on the wall (not the corner, by the way, and set a string/cord at that point near the ceiling.  You would then use a blue chalk to “chalk” the line all the way to the end of it, upon which you would hang a heavy metal item, usually shaped like a teardrop.  It’s called a plumb.  If you then drop the plumb until it reaches the floor, you can pluck the string against the wall and it will leave a perfectly straight blue line against which you can put the edge of your first piece of wallpaper.  It is straight because of gravity.  You can be sure that the first piece of wallpaper is straight, and each subsequent piece is lined up against that piece.

So, the plumb has plummeted from the ceiling to the floor.  That was easy.

From that act has come the idea that something which falls dramatically is plummeting.  

  • People committing suicide may plummet off the roof of a building to the road below.
  • Waterfalls plummet from a high peak down a mountain side to a pond below.
  • Cars which have an accident on a bridge may plummet over the side and into the river below.
  • Acrobats may plummet from high wires to the safety net below to end their performance.
  • And temperatures may plummet to very cold levels in a short period of time.

Plummet is a dramatic word.  If you drop a pencil, the pencil doesn’t plummet to the floor.  It simply falls.  Writers who use the word in an article or a story are indicating a serious situation which can have traumatic results.


Photo Credit: stormmaster

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