• flail •
Pronunciation: flayl • Hear it!
Part of Speech: Noun, Verb
Meaning: 1. (Noun) A manual threshing device or medieval combat weapon consisting of a long wooden handle and a shorter, free-swinging metal ball with spikes attached to its end. 2. (Verb) To thresh or winnow with a flail. 3. (Verb) To thrash, beat, to hit someone over and over with a stick or whip. 4. (Verb) To thrash about, to move the limbs or tail wildly.
Notes: The changes in technology should have made this word irrelevant. It was saved by its metaphorical sense when used as a verb, which took over the word as the original sense became antiquated. We are all better acquainted with the verb phrase to flail around than we are with a flail, which has long since been replaced by threshing machines.
In Play: Genghis Khan referred to himself as the Flail of God, as today's contributor pointed out. I think he had in mind flail, the weapon. We may freely use the word today in its second sense: "Billy! Don't flail around so much while I'm trying to dress you!"
Word History: Today's Good Word came down from Old English flegil under the influence of Old French flaiel, both from Late Latin flagellum "threshing tool, small whip". This word underlies the verb flagellare "to whip", whose past participle is flagellatus, from which English came up with flagellate "to whip, whip-like". This word is derived from Latin flagrum "whip". The original PIE word bhlag- "strike, hit" would seem to have taken up residence only marginally in Germanic languages. Icelandic blak "light blow" is the obvious remnant of it among the Germanic languages. But there is another oddity in English: blow "an act of hitting". It was originally blau, which looks suspiciously like blak, except there is no explanation of how the W replaced the K. (Lest I provide Margie Swed with the inclination to flail me, let me thank her for suggesting today's Good Word.)