Printable Version
Pronunciation: bUl-wrk Hear it!

Part of Speech: Noun

Meaning: 1. A solid structure or wall raised for defense. In nautical terms, it's a breakwater or the part of a ship's side above the upper deck provided with a gangplank for passengers to board. 2. By extension, anything that protects one from danger or unpleasantness.

Notes: We're a warlike species and the English language has a vocabulary to reflect the fact. Barricade, breastwork and earthwork are other terms for defensive structures. A bulwark refers to the sturdiest of the all. A barricade is a hasty construction to deter an immediate threat, a breastwork refers to a low temporary wall hurriedly built, and earthwork is just a pile of dirt put up for defense.

In Play: Bulwarks are not so useful in warfare any more, but the term's metaphorical usefulness is far from drained: "The new vice president is such a bulwark against progress as to materially darken the prospects of this institution." We can use bulwark as a verb, too, "Henrietta's trust fund bulwarked her against her father's succession of wives."

Word History: Today's Good Word was borrowed from Middle High German bolwerc, comprising bole "plank, tree trunk" + werc "work". Bhel-/bhol- "to blow, swell" was the PIE root that produced bole. Its descendants are numerous and stretch from Old Norse bolr "tree trunk" to modern Italian palla "ball". English ball and balloon come from the same source. The root werg- originally meant "make, do" and underlies not only English work, but Greek ergon "work", organon "organ" and orgia "sacred ritual", which the Greeks at one time must have considered work. The Germanic word bolwerc was borrowed by Old French as bollewerc which later became boulever and, finally, Modern French boulevard. At this point the Germanic languages borrowed it back with an entirely new meaning—another French-Germanic ping-pong word.

Dr. Goodword,

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