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In a word: espantoon

H.L. Mencken

Each week The Sun's John McIntyre presents a relatively obscure but evocative word with which you may not be familiar, another brick to add to the wall of your vocabulary. This week's word: 

ESPANTOON

Baltimore can boast the contribution of a word to the English language (though one not yet remarked upon in the OED). In other places, a police officer may carry a club, a billy club, or a nightstick; but in Baltimore the officer wields an espantoon

Webster's Second's definition is succinct: "in Baltimore: a policeman's club." The espantoon is a wooden baton about two feet in length, with a leather strap that can be used for twirling. 

The derivation is explained in the WPA Writers' Program book Maryland: A Guide to the Old Line State: "Baltimore has a word peculiarly its own, espantoon, meaning a policeman's club or nightstick. It apparently originated during the Revolutionary period, when officers of the British infantry carried spontoons ... short pikes." 

And indeed the spontoon, from the French sponton or esponton, is a "half-pike or halberd carried by infantry officers in the 18th century (from about 1740). (That the OED includes.) 

The espantoon remains an optional piece of equipment for the Baltimore force. 

Example: From H.L. Mencken's Happy Days: A policeman "might grab a more or less innocent boy, accuse him of breaking a window-pane in a house six blocks away, and proceed to do justice upon him on the spot, with the thin leather thong that flowed from the end of every cop's espantoon, enabling him to swing it ostentatiously as he patrolled his beat." 


Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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