Verb > Pinion

Verb – Pinion

A pinion is a wing or feather on a bird or insect. This “pinion” comes from the Latin word for “wing or feather.

(A pinion is also the smaller of the two wheels or cogs in a pair of them–but, interestingly, that kind of “pinion” traces back to the Latin word for “comb,” not “wing or feather.”)

If you pinion a bird, that means you cut off or tie down one or more of its pinions, so that it can’t fly.

And, more generally, if you pinion things or people, that means you take away their freedom to move or their freedom to do what they want, as if you’re cutting off or tying down their “wings.”

Part of speech:
often a verb, the transitive kind: “she pinioned it to the ground.”

Other forms:
pinions, pinioned, pinioning.

how to use it:
If you’re like me, you picked up the word “pinion” from context, assuming it only means “to pin down” before realizing it also means “to clip the wings, literally or figuratively.” And you can absolutely use “pinion” to mean “pin [down],” and you can interpret it that way, too. Here’s a line from the Decemberists: “her ankles clasped, her arms so rudely pinioned.” See? It makes sense whether you interpret “pinion” as “pin” or “tie down the ‘wings.'”

But once you notice how “pinion” does suggest this whole metaphor of birds, insects, wings, feathers, flight, and captivity, you can use the word more richly. Here’s L. A. Graf: “Sulu stood pinioned by her gaze, suspended between fascination and terror like an insect transfixed by a stalking reptile.” Is Sulu simply pinned down here, or is he prevented from taking flight? Both, I’d say.

As these examples show, we often use “pinion” in the passive voice, talking about the things, people, and body parts that are pinioned, often pinioned by something else, pinioned down, pinioned to something, etc.

“When I saw the flamingo wasn’t pinioned, I knew it wasn’t from a zoo.”
— Chuck Border, a zookeeper, as quoted by Joe Sills, National Geographic, 9 March 2018

“He feared the prisoners, although they were securely pinioned; still more he feared the wild beasts of the forest.”
— Herbert Strang, With Drake on the Spanish Main, 1908

“But the most unforgettable performance comes from Cecilia Noble…there is something moving about the way Noble periodically launches into a shimmying display of spiritual zeal, with her left hand pinioned to her back and her right endorsing her hallelujahs.”
— Michael Billington, The Guardian, 12 June 2013