Quadrant consisting of two arms of unequal length joined at a right angle and fitted with a graduated arc. At the vertex of the right angle is suspended a plumb bob that shows the degrees on the graduated arc. It was typically used to measure the elevation of artillery pieces, by inserting the longer arm into the gun mouth and reading the inclination on the degree scale with the plumb bob. A variant of this instrument, designed for measuring heights and distances, used a shadow square instead of the graduated arc. Both variants of the instrument were published by Nicolò Tartaglia (1499-1557) in Nova Scientia (Venice, 1537), a treatise in which ballistics, formulated with rigorous geometrical methods, is presented as a new discipline of the mathematical sciences.
This gunner’s quadrant is composed of two flat legs of uneven length, joined at a right angle. A graduated arc enabled made it possible – presumably with the use of a plumb bob tied in the corner – to measure scarp-wall gradients and gun elevations. The model from which this example derives was described by Niccolò Tartaglia in Nova Scientia.
Provenance: Vincenzo Viviani bequest - Images: catalogue.museogalileo.it
Point-blank means, literally, aimed or fired at a target so close that it is unnecessary to make allowance for the drop in the course of the projectile. And at point-blank range means permitting such aim or fire without loss of accuracy.
The figurative sense plain(ly), blunt(ly), stems from this idea of directness.
THE TRADITIONAL EXPLANATION
According to this traditional explanation, point-blank is similar in its construction to words such as cut-throat and breakneck; it is a compound in which:
- blank (from French blanc, white) is the noun, meaning the white spot in the centre of a target
- point is the verb, referring to the pointing of the arrow or gun at the blank.
However, there are three problems with this traditional explanation.
1-: The word blank was never used in the sense of target in the printed technical literature of the Elizabethan age. (The Oxford English Dictionary gives two erroneous early examples of the use of blank in the sense of white spot in the centre of a target, as J. R. Hale demonstrates in Renaissance War Studies.)
As far as archery is concerned, the word used for target in its broadest sense of anything aimed at was mark, and in more specialised senses prick and butt. The butt was the turf background against which marks were placed. There were usually two butts, one at each extremity of the range; hence the frequent mention of a pair of butts. The prick was a card which was placed against the butt, but could also be secured against any standing object or in the ground.
Additionally, in A Dictionarie of the French and English Tongues (1611), Randle Cotgrave translates French toucher au blanc as to strike the white; to hit the naile on the head, and the second meaning he gives for the word blanc is the white, or marke of a paire of buts [= butts].
(Incidentally, the word target itself did not acquire its modern sense until the 18th century.)
2-: It seems difficult that point-blank can be a compound similar to cut-throat and breakneck, because you cut a throat and you break a neck whereas you point at something: the verb point cannot have a “direct” object (except when referring to the thing being pointed, as in point a gun or point the finger).
3-: This traditional explanation does not account for the earliest uses of the phrase point-blank, which do not mention targets, let alone white spots: originally, point-blank did not refer to the thing aimed at, but to the aim, the range, the passage of a shot over the most lethal part of its course.
For example, in The Merry Wives of Windsor, Act 3, scene 2, Shakespeare wrote:
This boy will carry a letter twenty mile, as easy as a cannon will shoot point-blank twelve score.
And, in Hamlet, “As level as the cannon to his blank Transports his poisoned shot” does not mean “As level as the cannon sends its ball to its target”, but “As level as the cannon sends its ball within the limits of its point-blank range”.
Similarly, in Othello, “I have stood within the blank of his displeasure” means “I have stood within the lethal range of his displeasure”.
A MORE CONVINCING EXPLANATION
According to this theory, point-blank is from the French phrase de pointe en blanc, used in ballistics.
Similarly, English cap-a-pie, meaning (dressed, armed, etc.) from head to foot, is a rendering of French cap à pié - read here for the details.
In Spanish, estar, ir, or ponerse de punta en blanco means to be, go, or dress cap-a-pie, from the original sense armed with all the elements of the old armour.
And it is interesting to remark that de punta en blanco (literally from point to blank) is also the Spanish equivalent of English point-blank in its literal and figurative senses.
According to Émile Littré in Dictionnaire de la langue française (1863), in the phrase de pointe en blanc, de pointe means from the firing point, and blanc does not mean target or its centre, but blank, in the sense of empty space, so that de pointe en blanc was used of firing into empty space, for the purpose of seeing how far a piece would carry.
De pointe en blanc has been superseded in French by de but en blanc, where the word but is an alteration of butte, meaning the butt, the mound upon which the piece of artillery was located.
In Modern French, de but en blanc is only used figuratively in the same sense as English point-blank.
The following, in An Universal Etymological English Dictionary (1790), compiled by Nathan Bailey and Edward Harwood, supports the theory that English point-blank is from French de point(e) en blanc:
Point Blank [Point en blanc, French in Gunnery] is when the Piece being levelled, the Bullet goes directly forward, and not in an oblique Line.
Also in support of this French origin, the form point and blank is found in Certain discourses, written by Sir Iohn Smythe, Knight: concerning the formes and effects of divers sorts of weapons, and other verie important matters militarie (1590), by Sir John Smythe (circa 1534-1607):
The mosquet ranforced and well charged with good powder, would carrie a full bullet poynt and blancke.
The arrowes doo not onelie wound, and sometimes kill in their points and blank, but also in their discents and fall.
If Harquebuziers also or Mosquettiers in taking their sights, doo faile butt the length of a wheate corne in the heighth of their point and blancke, they worke none effect at the marks that they shoote at.
The term point and blank taken in its literal interpretation makes no sense in English. It can only be understood as an inaccurate translation of French de point(e) en blanc. And the rendering of en by and suggests that it has been acquired by hearing it spoken rather than from reading.
It is therefore possible that the form point-blank is a simplification of point and blank.
THE ITALIAN INFLUENCE
The French phrase de pointe en blanc corresponds to Italian di punto in bianco, or di punto bianco.
The French phrase may — or may not — have its origin in the most copious military literature of the time, that of Italy, where bianco in di punto (in) bianco did not mean white but zero.
This Italian phrase was first used in 1568 by Girolamo Ruscelli in Precetti della militia moderna.
Later in the century, in Trattato di fortificazione, Galileo defined the term:
quel tiro, che non ha elevazione alcuna, vien detto tiro di punto bianco, cioè di punto nessuno, di punto zero.
But the method of aiming a cannon by means of a gunner’s quadrant marked with angles (punti) of elevation from zero (horizontal fire) to a point near the vertical had been made as early as 1537 by Niccolò Tartaglia in his Nova Scientia, and elaborated in his Quesiti, ut inventioni diverse, dedicated in 1546 to Henry VIII.
Tiro di punto (in) bianco meant to fire horizontally, which corresponded, on the gunner’s quadrant, to zero, or, more properly, to the absence of number: bianco in Italian, i.e. blank in English, blanc in French.
In Modern Italian, di punto in bianco has the same figurative meaning as French de but en blanc.
Technical data: Renaissance War Studies, by J. R. Hale, 1983, Bloomsbury Publishing
TWO OTHER FRENCH PHRASES
In its literal and figurative meanings, point-blank corresponds to two other French phrases: à bout portant and à brûle pourpoint.
These French phrases were recorded in the first (1694) edition of Le Dictionnaire de l’Académie française:
On dit, en parlant d’armes à feu, Tirer à bout portant, pour dire, De trés-prés, appuyant sur le corps le bout de l’arme dont on se sert. Il luy tira un coup de pistolet à bout portant.
On dit fig. Dire quelque chose à bout portant, pour dire, Dire quelque chose de fascheux en face à quelqu’un.
On dit encore prov. Tirer un coup à brusle pourpoint, pour dire, Le tirer à bout portant.
In tirer à bout portant:
- tirer means to fire, shoot
- le bout is the firearm barrel
- portant is a form of the verb porter, whose generic sense is to carry, but in this case is to put.
The literal meaning of tirer à bout portant is therefore to shoot someone while putting the barrel of the firearm against their body.
The phrase à brûle pourpoint conveys the very same idea:
- brûle is a form of the verb brûler, to burn
- le pourpoint is a man’s stuffed quilted doublet of a kind worn between the Middle Ages and the 17th century.
In Modern French, the phrase à brûle pourpoint is used figuratively, and à bout portant is used literally.