Punt,verb and noun.

This most useful word nicely illustrates how a word with two meanings that are unrelated but overlap in their applicability, can prove more useful than either meaning alone — just as a dish with several ingredients is more complex and satisfying than each ingredient by itself. To punt is, firstly, to make a bet — originally an 18th-century card-player’s term from an obscure French word.

Secondly, it is to execute a drop-kick at rugby football and similar games; in this sense it is probably related to “put,” meaning “throw”(as in “shot-putting”). To punt a goal is to score a goal with a punt.

It is easy to see how, with this sense of scoring a long shot, the gambling meaning shifted subtly. To take a punt at something is to take a gamble or try at it, but with a hint that it is a rather wild or unprepared one. A punter could be anyone who bets, but is more likely to refer to an easy mark for a swindler. By transference anyone who sees potential customers as a source of easy money may refer to them as punters: “This two-for-one offer will get the punters in.”

A punt is also the old currency of Ireland (the Irish form of “pound”), and in its oldest meaning by far, a flat-bottomed river boat propelled by pushing along the bottom of the river with a long pole. These boats are most famously found in the toff-filled universities of Oxford and Cambridge, and are as English as strawberries and cream.

Mark Wainwright is a freelance writer living in Cambridge. Got a question about something you’ve seen or heard around the United Kingdom? E-mail us at:

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