Definition: An unused word for corner. It has several variants, including quoin and coyne.
Pronunciation: coin (the ‘g’ is silent).
Origin: There are two suggested origins. The first is English – a reference by a Shakespeare character in Macbeth to coign of vantage was used to imply an advantageous place from which to view something – an advantageous place or corner, as such. The second seemingly independent root comes from the old Gaelic Irish law of Coign and Livery. Coign and Livery was a very old tradition whereby the local chief or king was allowed to put himself, his army and his retinue up at your house and you had the ‘privilege’ of paying for it… The practice fell out of use by the 17th century.
Why this word?
It seems to me that, despite there being two seemingly different roots, they might just be the same word. Both refer to a place. Both were in existence at around the same time. The first known use of it in the English Language was in Macbeth – which was written at around the same time that there was an English army of occupation in Ireland – themselves being coigned and liveried in the countryside. It seems likely to me that this word could well have been taken back to London where it was heard and committed to paper.
I myself first encountered the word in Seamus Heaney’s 2010 poem, Death of a Painter. Heaney resurrects the phrase coign of vantage to great effect to show how the painter in question, Nancy Wynne Jones, explores the landscape from her studio window:
“Not a tent of blue but a peek of gold
From her coign of vantage in the studio,
A Wicklow cornfield in the gable window.”
How to use this word:
Heaney’s recent use of the word as part of the phrase coign of vantage means that it may just be acceptable to try this one out. Next time, instead of ‘From where I’m standing’, or ‘From my point of view’, take a risk and say ‘From my coign of vantage’.
Unless you are a witness in a crime, that is. ‘From my coign of vantage, I saw the mugger repeatedly swing the baseball bat’ … hmmmm. Coign of vantage should be reserved for inspirational moments of insight or to describe moments that deserve poetry. To use it for anything else would, quite simply, be a crime in itself.