Discuss word origins and meanings.
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Post by Ken Greenwald » Thu Jul 16, 2015 3:10 am

I read an interesting magazine article written back in February by a couple who took a tour through the Paleolithic Niaux Caves in France. The cave contains 13,000-year-old drawings which the authors called “masterpieces.” In fact, the title is:
13,000-year-old Masterpieces:

The idea that perspective was invented in Florence in 1414 collapsed in an instant. Here, larger mammals are in front of smaller ones who trail behind; animals at the back of packs are smaller than those in front. . . Elsewhere, an Ibex is depicted from behind and over the shoulder—an in incredibly sophisticated perspective. One horse is seen from highly accomplished three-quarters view. Imagery seemed adjusted for curvature and protrusions of the walls in the same ways that Renaissance frescoes adjust for distortions, distance, and odd viewing angles. . . The shading I saw on the rear hoof and fetlock of a bison, the first thing that I set eyes on when our guide shined her light in the gallery, never leaves me. It is the punctum—the flash point—of the caves for me.
I venture that when it comes to the best of these paintings, mammals have never been rendered better in the history or our species. [[I’m sure the authors are thrilled I think that here they’re a bit over the top.]]

The shading I saw on the rear hoof and fetlock of a bison, the first thing I set eyes on when our guide shined her light in the gallery, never leaves me. It is the punctum—the flash point—of the caves for me.

I venture to say that when it comes to the best of these paintings, mammals have never been rendered better in the history of our species. [[Oy vey!]]

So what’s a punctum – never heard of it! But, if we are to believe the author wants it to mean ‘flash point' then I don't know if he thinks it is known with his meaning to a select few 'erudites' as him or he's trying to coin a new meaning.


FLASH POINT or FLASHPOINT noun: The point at which eruption into significant action, creation, or violence occurs: <The shootdown did not increase international tensions to the flash point.> [[And this is the only meaning of ‘flashpoint’ that I’m aware of.]



1) obsolete : POINT [[see OED (1), below]]

2) A small area marked off in any way from a surrounding surface : dot, puncture <A punctum in a fossil shell> <Insect bites that may show the central tiny hemorrhagic punctum>— Journal American Medical Association

Note: American Heritage Dictionary and Random House Webster’s Unabridged Dictionary do not even list punctum, so we probably don’t have a real barnburner here, but Google does claim 617,000 hits (at my space-time coordinates). But take a look at the pathetic three pages of, as they say, “the most relevant results” they have found – again, makes one wonder about the false impression Google often tends to give. And even though their number may be technically accurate, the number of repeats is often enormous.

Here is a sampling of what the OXFORD ENGLISH DICTIONARY had to say (updated September 2007):

Etymology: <classical Latin punctum>

1a) [before 1592] obsolete: A geometrical point in space; a mathematical point.

2b) [1620] obsolete: A very small division of time, an instant.

2c) [before 1680]: The essence of a matter or thing, the most important focus of attention or consideration; (also) a point for discussion, a proposition.

3) [1724]: Originally point used as a punctuation mark (now obsolete), a full stop.

4) [1653]: Chiefly Zoological, Botanical, and Medical. A minute rounded mark or object; a speck, a dot; a small rounded spot of colour; a small elevation or depression on a surface.

5) [1751]: Anatomy. More fully lacrimal punctum. The tiny circular orifice of each of the lacrimal ducts, situated on the margin of each eyelid near the medial commissure.

6) [1879] In Western plainsong notation: a neume or part of a neume signifying a single note, usually written as a dot. [[‘neumen’: A sign used in the notation of plainsong during the Middle Ages, surviving today in transcriptions of Gregorian chants.]]

7) a) Early Music [1853]: A closing inflection used in the chanting of lessons or prayers in Christian liturgy, often entailing a descent from the monotone reciting note. Now rare. b) 1879]: In Western plainsong notation: a neume or part of a neume signifying a single note, usually written as a dot.

So much for the OED, which is good stuff. But to see how people more ‘commonly’ use the word today, I tried taking a look at some more ‘with-it’ dictionaries which inched a little closer – but no cigar – to the author’s usage (coinage?). The definition is no help, although the sample sentences inch a little closer to his drift.


Technical: A small distinct point.

Example Sentences:

Barthes writes, ‘However lightning-like it may be, the punctum has, more or less potentially, a power of expansion.’”

“In view of the history of recurring meningitis, search of the child's skin then showed a small punctum in the back of the neck.”

“For Barthes, the catastrophe is unavoidable because time obliterates the punctum, or small space, registered in the photograph.

Anatomy: The opening of a tear duct.

Punctum, functum, plunctum, . . . flashpoint? – seems like an effort by the author to introduce a word he heard somewhere, possibly from some literati folks. Maybe he couldn’t quite think of one that expressed what he really wanted to say. And perhaps he was thinking that he would attain acclaim with his coinage or whatever. The dashes around flash point would point out to those select few who already knew the meaning of punctum that he was defining it for the masses who didn’t know, or if he lucked out he could claim the dashes as a sign of his coinage if no one else stepped up and claimed ownership, But, nonetheless, it can’t be denied that it was a great and thrilling discovery that the author writes about and which obviously got him ‘all shook up’ (did I just coin that or did I hear it someplace?) (<:)

Ken G – July 15, 2015

Re: punctum

Post by Erik_Kowal » Thu Jul 16, 2015 3:16 am

Hey, if "our guide shined her light in the gallery", you can be pardoned for not being "all shaken up". ;)

Re: punctum

Post by tony h » Thu Jul 16, 2015 9:23 pm

The shading I saw on the rear hoof and fetlock of a bison, the first thing I set eyes on when our guide shined her light in the gallery, never leaves me. It is the punctum—the flash point—of the caves for me.

Maybe ...

So the point here is they have gone into the cave in the dark.
The light from the torch lights a single small point on the wall and the sight "rear hoof and fetlock of a bison" causes an emotional flashpoint as they start to realise what they can see.
Signature: tony

I'm puzzled therefore I think.

Re: punctum

Post by Phil White » Thu Jul 16, 2015 10:36 pm

A rare, useful entry from the Urban dictionary may shed light:
A concept from Roland Barthes' book Camera Lucida: Reflections on Photography.

1. To wound.
2. Denoting the wounding, personally touching detail which establishes a direct relationship with the object or person within it.
"Yet the punctum shows no preference for morality or good taste: the punctum can be ill-bred."
Roland Barthes - Camera Lucida: Reflections on Photography (Page 43).

This article from the Guardian bears out the definition in the Urban Dictionary:
What, then, was Barthes looking for when he looked at photographs? In the first half of the book, he elaborates a distinction between two planes of the image. The first, which he calls the studium, is the manifest subject, meaning and context of the photograph: everything that belongs to history, culture, even to art. "The studium is a kind of education," he writes. It's here that we learn, say, about Moscow in a William Klein street photograph from 1959, or about the comportment of a well-dressed African-American family in a 1926 picture by James Van Der Zee. But it's the second category that really skewers Barthes's sensibility. He calls it the punctum: that aspect (often a detail) of a photograph that holds our gaze without condescending to mere meaning or beauty. In the same Van Der Zee photograph, the punctum is one woman's strapped pumps, though it later shifts, as the image "works" on the author, to her gold necklace. This is one of a few curious moments in the book where Barthes blatantly misreads the image at hand; the woman is actually wearing a string of pearls. But his point survives: he has been indelibly touched by the poignant detail.
And this from Wikipedia:
Throughout his career, Barthes had an interest in photography and its potential to communicate actual events. Many of his monthly myth articles in the 50s had attempted to show how a photographic image could represent implied meanings and thus be used by bourgeois culture to infer ‘naturalistic truths’. But he still considered the photograph to have a unique potential for presenting a completely real representation of the world. When his mother, Henriette Barthes, died in 1977 he began writing Camera Lucida as an attempt to explain the unique significance a picture of her as a child carried for him. Reflecting on the relationship between the obvious symbolic meaning of a photograph (which he called the studium) and that which is purely personal and dependent on the individual, that which ‘pierces the viewer’ (which he called the punctum), Barthes was troubled by the fact that such distinctions collapse when personal significance is communicated to others and can have its symbolic logic rationalized. Barthes found the solution to this fine line of personal meaning in the form of his mother’s picture. Barthes explained that a picture creates a falseness in the illusion of ‘what is’, where ‘what was’ would be a more accurate description. As had been made physical through Henriette Barthes's death, her childhood photograph is evidence of ‘what has ceased to be’. Instead of making reality solid, it reminds us of the world’s ever changing nature. Because of this there is something uniquely personal contained in the photograph of Barthes’s mother that cannot be removed from his subjective state: the recurrent feeling of loss experienced whenever he looks at it. As one of his final works before his death, Camera Lucida was both an ongoing reflection on the complicated relations between subjectivity, meaning and cultural society as well as a touching dedication to his mother and description of the depth of his grief.
Yeah, whatever... What can you expect from a French semiotician. And it's unlikely that anyone who reads French semioticians is likely to be able to spel. Or construct sentence.
Signature: Phil White
Non sum felix lepus

Re: punctum

Post by Wizard of Oz » Thu Jul 30, 2015 2:27 am

Well done Phil. I think you have nailed it AND by using the Urban Dictionary. Seems it can be useful in some instances. As for the "flashpoint" reference I believe he is using two different words/ideas to express his feeling. He uses punctum and then flashpoint not as a definition of punctum but as an alternative feeling at seeing the shading on the image.

WoZ still learning from WW
Signature: "The question is," said Alice, "whether you can make words mean so many different things."

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