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Naming an elephant’s nose

The names that become associated with items can be a fascinating look at the history of words, and an elephant’s trunk is a good example. While other animals with longer noses have not gotten that designation, it seems there should be a logical explanation. There is one, and learning more about it will be a wonderful walk through the jungle of language as it gets used throughout time.

There is no definitive date or incident where the nose of an elephant was given the name trunk, but that is not quite a stopping point for knowledge here. There is some conjecture and theory associated with the actual start of using this odd name, but it relates to the common use of English in the late sixteenth century. Richard Hakluyt called it a troonke in his Principal Navigations, and his own use of language at that time reflected more about the use of the nose than the looks of it. A trunk at that time was actually what a hollow tube or pipe was called, and the fact the elephant could fill it with water and blow it out it thought to be the reason he used that particular word.

This theory is supported quite well by others writings of the time, and they often refer to hollow tubes used as ear-trumpets and even speaking tubes that were part of summoning servants in homes or sailors on ships. The explorations of the English around the world were documented by many who set out, and even blow-guns used by more primitive cultures were often referred to as trunks because something was placed inside the hollow tube and spit back out.

For those who feel this theory does not quite match up with their definition of a trunk, the same language can provide more answers. Latin is the basis for many English words common today, and it is there that the next step of language exploration will be going. The main stem or stock of a person’s body or a tree is a truncus in Latin, and the French of ancient times called it a tronc. These are not descriptions of an elephant or its nose, but they are the forerunners of the English version that became trunk during the fifteenth century. Storage chests were often referred to as trunks as the word progressed through several different languages, so there is the connection with the elephant’s use of their nose as a way to store water before spraying it.

A third theory about the word trunks in connection with elephants and their noses has to do with swimwear. The earlier part of the nineteenth century saw its own share of changes and reference to swimming trunks was part of it. Being able to place the legs through holes in a pair of shorts was evidently a new concept for many, and it became synonymous with the word trunks over time. While not in common use today, most people can recognize what is being discussed when swim trunks are mentioned, and the concept of two hollow spaces for legs to fill in meshes nicely with the idea of how an elephant’s trunk works.

These three theories are not necessarily proven, but they do show the ease of taking a word meant for one item and applying it to something similar can give new depth and meaning to just one simple word.

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