The Culture Verbal Energy Verbal Energy

Peal, repeal, rappel – and climbing down

After the Senate’s healthcare votes, the word ‘repeal’ took on a new fascination for me.

Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz. speaks on Capitol Hill in Washington on July 27, 2017.
J. Scott Applewhite/AP
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I was as focused as any of my fellow citizens on that big series of “repeal and replace” votes in the Senate a few weeks ago, culminating in Sen. John McCain’s gasp-inducing early-morning thumbs down

But I had plain old peal on my mind, too. I was reviewing final page proofs for a client’s book (well, actually, more like the “Final Final This Time We Really Mean It Final” proofs) when I realized that a page I had reviewed at least 47 times included a reference to a “peeling” church bell. Argh! How had I not caught this? And it was a bell made by Paul Revere, no less! 

We made the fix, though, and after some self-flagellation I began to wonder, Hmm, is there any connection between peal and repeal

It seems so. Peal, as a noun meaning the ringing of a bell, especially as a summons, or call, to a church service, goes all the way back to the middle of the 14th century. The sense of “continuous ringing of bells,” as after a wedding, came later. Peal is “generally considered a shortened form of appeal,” the Online Etymology Dictionary notes. Appeal is rooted in the idea of a “call to” someone, especially some kind of authority, as in a “court of appeal.” 

The idea of repeal is of a recall, as when a foreign minister recalls one of his ambassadors from a foreign country. (No, recalling the ambassador doesn’t mean the minister has finally remembered the guy’s name.) Repeal is meant to function like the “undo” button on your computer, or that “unsend” button so many people have longed for since the beginning of email. 

This all made sense, but as I looked further, the word-kin of peal turned out to be fairly numerous. The big surprise was rappelling – yes, that technique for making your way down the side of a cliff with ropes. Except, as I discovered a while back, it’s not practiced only on mountains. 

Some friends of mine in Boston make their home in a splendid Queen Anne-style house that’s all turrets and impossibly steep-pitched sections of roof. They’ve enjoyed living there – except for a time when a population of bats took up residence. 

How to get rid of them? This would be no simple matter of putting up a ladder and climbing up onto the roof. No, the contractors had to do it with ropes and harnesses, presumably anchored somehow to the top of the house. “They had to rappel down to get rid of the bats!” I recall being told.

This mountaineering sense of rappel goes back only to 1957, according to the Online Etymology Dictionary. So the usage is not quite as old as the average US senator. The idea seems to be that of calling someone back down from the edge of a cliff.

It makes a certain amount of sense: After all, the repeal effort in the US Congress turned into a sort of climbdown in the end.