Final Word

Some political plumbers needed in South Africa?

Plumber.jpg

A mishap in my tiny garden last week put me at the mercy of the plumbing profession. The flow of things took me to the discovery of some interesting truths about South African political life.

 Researching the origins of the word plumbing and of the associated profession revealed some interesting facts.

 It turns out that the human activity of channelling water and all that things associated with ‘plumbing’ and the ‘plumber’s’ profession, predates the word itself by millenniums. It dates back to ancient Babylonia, known for its water systems facilitating the establishment of a city with lavish gardens and fountains in the arid Middle Eastern desert between 6 000 to 3 000 BC.

However, it was the Roman civilisation from around 600 BC that took the profession to another level and gave it its name.

 The Romans were the first to use lead, the heavy, but soft and pliable metal to fix leaky roofs and seal conduits and draining pipes. Rust-free, lead was also used to manufacture pipes and baths.

 As the Romans set out to conquer whichever lands they could lay their eyes and hands on, elements of their social and cultural life followed.  This included communal bath houses and fountains, and tradesmen working with lead became a common element of the developing civilisation and empire.

 The Latin word for lead was ‘plumbum’ and the person working with lead was called a plumbarius. Our modern word ‘plumber’ arrived in English in the late 14th century via the Old French word ‘plumier’ meaning “lead-smelter”.

An example of this is to be found in 14th century in a notary entry regarding repair work to the roof of Westminster Palace: “To Gilbert de Westminster, plumber, working about the roof of the pantry of the little hall, covering it with lead …”.

 Somewhere in the 19th century ‘plumber’ came in use to indicate a “workman who installs pipes and fittings”, as lead water pipes were commonly used. The system, be it for channelling drinking water or draining away sewerage, became known as ‘plumbing’.

Over the years the use of the word got extended to include other meanings as well. If I, for instance excuse myself from polite company because I “have to go check out the plumbing”, most people would understand that I have to visit the bathroom to answer a “call of nature”.

I could also express my appreciation of something by calling it “the greatest thing since indoor plumbing”.

 The list is almost endless and since it has always been the plumbers’ job to fix leaks, it is no surprise that it also found application in the world of politics, where facts and information have the tendency to come out in the open – mostly to the embarrassment of political leaders at the most inopportune times.

 Political leaks

 It is very often from the inner, confidential or secret circles of political parties and/or government institutions that this information “leaks” to the media.

 With the high levels of turmoil presently in South African politics we have lately experienced plenty of leaks about power struggles and shenanigans inside such structures - from gossip about the Democratic Alliance’s Helen Zille to anti-Zuma factions in the African National Congress.

 From the days of the Watergate scandal and the Vietnam War under the Richard Nixon administration in the United States came the term or name, the “White House Plumbers”. Supposed to be and to remain a covert “special investigative unit”, the White House Plumbers’ job was to plug “leaks” from within government circles. And then information about its existence got leaked itself!

 The word ‘leak’ was given to us by the ancient seafaring Vikings who spoke Proto-Germanic and used the word ‘lek’, which in Old Norse, the Germanic language of medieval Scandinavia, became ‘leka’, in Dutch ‘lekken’ and in Old English ‘leccan’, which all more or less meant “to let water in or out”.

 Political leaders who are thinking of using the White House-type of plumber to fix some of their public relations headaches, should probably also dive a little deeper into the murky waters of their problems to seek solutions. The original root word, ‘lek’ used by the Vikings meant “deficiency”.

 As a final thought, one should always remember, if you can, that the meaning of words can sometimes be a bit like another metal, quicksilver.

 Just as I was starting to think that at my age I truly understand the meaning of the term “memory leak” the technological whiz kids of today came up with a new meaning for the term: It is what happens when a “computer programme allocates more memory than is necessary for its execution”.

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by Piet Coetzer

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