illustration from Kriegsbuch (1573)
Among the sources that have been used is The True Shakespearian Blank, published in Renaissance War Studies (The Hambledon Press – London, 1983), by John Rigby Hale (1923-99), British historian and translator.
Used as an adjective, point-blank means, literally, aimed or fired at a target so close that it is unnecessary to make allowance for the drop in the course of the projectile. The figurative sense plain, blunt, stems from this idea of directness.
This word first appeared as a noun in 1571 in the sense of the maximum range within which a projectile fired horizontally from a gun or cannon flies more or less level with the bore of the firearm before falling appreciably below the line sighted along. This is illustrated by the following passage from The Arte of shooting in great Ordnaunce. Contayning very necessary matters for all sortes of Seruitoures eyther by Sea or by Lande (London, 1587), by William Bourne (died 1583), a gunner for the English navy; he describes the manner of knowing
at al times how for to shoote iust vnto the mark, especially within point blank, & point blanke, is the direct fleeing of the shot, without any descending from the mouth of the peece vnto the mark, ye [= the] mouth of the peece to stand directly with the Horizon, so that it be vpon a plaine and leuell ground, as far as ye peece may cast, hytting any thing that standeth directly as hygh as the mouth of the peece.
Bourne also writes that “one of the best wayes, in the finding what distance any peece conuayeth or driueth the shotte vppon the right line” is as follows:
Repaire vnto a very leuell ground, as a plaine marrish, that is iust water leuell, and then to finde the right line or point blanke, rayse a butte or banke in that plaine grounde, and then sette vppe a marke the iust height of the peece that lyeth in the carriage.
Likewise, the English poet and playwright William Shakespeare (1564-1616) uses point-blank as an adverb meaning in a horizontal line in The Merry Wiues of Windsor (Folio 1, 1623), when Ford remarks of Falstaff’s page:
Why this boy will carrie a letter twentie mile as easie, as
a Canon will shoot point-blanke twelue score.
The term point-blank therefore also denoted the most lethal part of the course of a projectile. Shakespeare uses blank for point-blank in this sense; for example:
– in The Tragœdy of Othello, The Moore of Venice (Quarto 1, 1622), when Desdemona say to Cassio:
Alas thrice gentle Cassio,
My aduocation is not now in tune;
My Lord is not my Lord, nor should I know him,
Were he in fauour, as in humor altred.
So helpe me, euery spirit sanctified,
As I haue spoken for you, all my best,
And stood within the blanke of his displeasure,
For my free speech.
“I haue […] stood within the blanke of his displeasure” means “I have stood within the lethal range of his displeasure”.
– in The Tragicall Historie of Hamlet, Prince of Denmarke (Quarto 2, 1604), when Claudius say to Gertrude:
Come Gertrard, wee’le call vp our wisest friends,
And let them know both what we meane to doe
And whats vntimely doone,
Whose whisper ore the worlds dyameter,
As leuell as the Cannon to his blanck,
Transports his poysned shot, may misse our Name,
And hit the woundlesse ayre, ô come away,
My soule is full of discord and dismay.
“As leuell as the Cannon to his blanck,/ Transports his poysned shot” means “As level as the cannon sends its ball within the limits of its point-blank range”.
It is likely that point-blank is from the obsolete French phrase de pointe en blanc, used in ballistics.
According to the French lexicographer Émile Littré (1801-81) in Dictionnaire de la langue française (Paris, 1873), in de pointe en blanc, de pointe means from the firing point, and blanc means blank in the sense of empty space, so that de pointe en blanc was used of firing into empty space, for the purpose of seeing how far a piece would carry.
(This phrase has been superseded by de but en blanc, where the word but is an alteration of butte, meaning the butt, the mound upon which the piece of artillery is located; nowadays, de but en blanc is used only in a figurative sense identical to that of point-blank.)
The following from An Universal Etymological English Dictionary (20th edition – London, 1763), originally compiled in 1721 by the English philologist and lexicographer Nathan Bailey (died 1742), supports the theory that point-blank is from de pointe en blanc:
Point Blank [Point en blanc, French in Gunnery] is when the Piece being levelled, the Bullet goes directly forward, and not in an oblique Line.
Also in support of this French origin, John Smythe (1534?-1607), soldier, diplomat and author, used the form point and blank in Certain discourses, written by Sir Iohn Smythe, Knight: concerning the formes and effects of diuers sorts of weapons, and other verie important matters militarie, greatlie mistaken by diuers of our men of warre in these daies; and chiefly, of the mosquet, the caliuer and the long-bow; as also, of the great sufficiencie, excellencie, and wonderful effects of archers: with many notable examples and other particularities, by him presented to the nobilitie of this realme, & published for the benefite of this his natiue countrie of England (London, 1590); he wants to demonstrate “the great sufficiencie, excellencie, and wonderfull effects of Archers”:
The Archers being good, they doo direct their arrowes in the shooting of them out of their Bowes with a great deale more certaintie, being within eight, nine, tenne, or eleuen scores, than anie Harquebuziers or Mosquettiers (how good soeuer they bee) can doo in a much neerer distance, by reason that Mosquettiers & Harquebuziers failing in their points and blancke, doo neither kill nor hurt (vnlesse it happen as the blind man shooting at the Crowe;) besides that, in their points and blancke, through the imperfections before declared, they doo verie seldome hit, whereas contrariwise the arrowes doo not onelie wound, and sometimes kill in their points and blank, but also in their discents & fall.
The term point and blank taken in its literal interpretation makes no sense in English: it can only be understood as an inaccurate translation of French de pointe en blanc; and the rendering of en by and suggests that it has been acquired by hearing it spoken rather than from reading.
It is therefore possible that the form point-blank is a simplification of point and blank.
The most copious military literature of the 16th century was that of Italy, so that French de pointe en blanc may be from Italian di punto in bianco, also di punto bianco, where bianco did not mean white but zero.
This Italian phrase was first used in 1568 by Girolamo Ruscelli in Precetti della militia moderna. But the method of aiming a cannon by means of a gunner’s quadrant marked with angles (punti) of elevation from zero (horizontal fire) to a point near the vertical had been conceived as early as 1537 by Niccolò Tartaglia in Nova Scientia, and elaborated in Quesiti, ut inventioni diverse, dedicated in 1546 to Henry VIII.
Tirar di punto (in) bianco meant to fire horizontally, which corresponded, on the gunner’s quadrant, to zero, or, more properly, to the absence of number: bianco in Italian, i.e. blanc in French, blank in English.
In Modern Italian, di punto in bianco has the same figurative meaning as French de but en blanc.
The traditional theory is that point-blank is similar in its construction to words such as cut-throat and breakneck, and is a compound in which:
– blank (from French blanc, white) is a noun meaning the white spot in the centre of a target;
– point is a verb referring to the pointing of the arrow or gun at the blank.
However, three facts make this traditional explanation implausible:
1: The word point-blank cannot be a compound similar to cut-throat and to breakneck, because one cuts a throat and one breaks a neck whereas one points at something: the verb point cannot have a “direct” object (except when referring to the thing being pointed, as in point a gun or point the finger).
2: This traditional explanation does not account for the earliest uses of point-blank, which do not refer to targets, let alone to white spots: originally, point-blank did not refer to the thing aimed at, but to the range within which a projectile flies more or less level with the bore of the gun before curving down towards the earth.
3: The word blank was never used in the sense of target in the literature of the Elizabethan age (the second edition (1989) of the Oxford English Dictionary gives two erroneous early examples of the use of blank in the sense of white spot in the centre of a target, as J. R. Hale demonstrates in Renaissance War Studies). As far as archery is concerned, the word used for target in its broadest sense of anything aimed at was mark and, in more specialised senses, the words were prick and butt. The butt was the turf background against which marks were placed; there were usually two butts, one at each extremity of the range, hence the frequent mention of a pair of butts. The prick was a card which was placed against the butt, but could also be secured against any standing object or in the ground.
Additionally, in A Dictionarie of the French and English Tongues (1611), Randle Cotgrave uses the noun white, not the noun blank, when he translates French toucher au blanc:
to strike the white; to hit the naile on the head
and the second meaning that he gives for the noun blanc is:
the white, or marke of a paire of buts [= butts].
The marks, whether of card, of peeled wood or of cloth, were usually white, to attract the archer’s eye, hence the phrase to hit the white used by Shakespeare in The Taming of the Shrew (Folio 1, 1623) when Petruchio says to Lucentio:
’Twas I wonne the wager, though you hit the white.
(Incidentally, the word target itself is recorded in its modern sense in the 18th century only; its original meaning was a small round shield; it is a diminutive of targe, meaning a shield.)