What does Ponnage mean?
My curiosity about this word was aroused in a couple of ways. Firstly, it looks like an English word. Secondly, in the title it seems to act as an adjective – in other words, the word ‘ponnage’ describes the pool in some way. Next, although it is not unknown for place names to use ‘the’, very few actually do (mountain ranges, seas & oceans, some countries – but that’s about it). Finally, why did the poet pick such an unusual word to include in the title? Poets are usually up to something interesting when they put weird words in the title.
So, what does it mean? Unfortunately, none of the usual reference sources are able to help. None of the books I looked at on Scottish poetry mentioned it. Nor did the Concise Scots Dictionary, nor the Chambers English dictionary nor the compact Oxford English Dictionary – not even the internet.
More digging. I mentioned before that ‘ponnage’ looks like an English word – I should have said French. –age is common suffix which found its way into English from French words like voyage and message. We find it too in words like vicarage and orphanage where it means “house, or place of”.
Now, what about “pon”? It looks like it could be related to the French word pont which ultimately comes from the Latin root pons, pontis meaning bridge (which is where we get pontoon.) The Chambers dictionary gives us the English word pons, also from the same root, which is used in anatomy to mean ‘a connecting part.”
If we’ve followed the right routes here, could ‘ponnage’ mean a bridging place? A place of connections? How does this relate to the theme of the poem? Why did Cruikshank choose such an obscure word to include in the title of the poem? Does it really change our reading of the poem to make such a guess at the word’s meaning? Does it matter if we’re wrong?
Having gone to some lengths to fathom this obscure word, I find out the next day that Tom Scott in the Penguin Book of Scottish Verse (1970) glosses the word as “ferry”. I think I prefer ‘a place of connections.”