Tuesday, 28 January 2014

Back in the saddle

As from tomorrow [at time of writing – realistically I mean today (=Tuesday 28 January 2014)] I shall buckle down [ahem, we'll come to that] to work on the proofs of #WVGTbook., having reached a breathing space in the index for the Kindle version. I shall get back in the saddle (defined by the Free Dictionary here) – one of several idioms related to horses and horse-riding.

The Phrase Finder does not mention 'it's a cinch' and the Free Dictionary does not trace the derivation, but simply gives the meaning: It's a very easy task.  Many years ago, I heard Alistair Cook give an interesting, but I believe questionable, explanation. He said that the buckle that fastened a saddle was called 'a cinch'. I know nothing about horsey stuff, but the assertion is credible. There are pictures of 'cinch buckles' here.

The supposed derivation was this: when people (cowboys, of course, given the Wild West derivation) were preparing for a ride on horseback, the last thing to fix was the cinch. Saying 'It's a cinch' was tantamount to saying 'I'm all ready to go'. Mr Cook didn't bother to explain how an expression that meant It's a very easy task came to mean  'I'm all ready to go' – though bigger changes are not uncommon in the development of languages. So I'm interested but not convinced. 

Another such bit  of dubious horse-related etymology attaches itself to the phrase Bite the dust.
Bite the dust  has been around for centuries, perhaps millennia – if we accept Homer's
Grant that my sword may pierce the shirt of Hector about his heart,
and that full many of his comrades may bite the dust as they fall dying round him.
as a precedent. But that was Samuel Butler's 19th-century translation, and he may well have taken inspiration from a more recent source:  Tobias Smollett wrote in 1750 , in his Adventures of Gil Blas of Santillane:
We made two of them bite the dust, and the others betake themselves to flight.
This is the Phrase Finder's story, which strikes me as perfectly plausible. Again it was an American source that I have no note of – possibly Alistair Cook again – that came up with a Wild West-based explanation. The dust in question was not the stuff on the ground, that a vanquished foe would metaphorically bite. Rather, it was the dust kicked up by a herd of cattle as they were driven to a railhead. The job with the lowest status on a cattle-train was at the rear of the herd, looking out for stragglers and 'biting the dust'. Hmmm?

You pays your money and you takes your choice, but I have to admit to a certain scepticism about this sort of 'explanation'. 

<digression theme="folk-etymology">
On the topic of red tape the Phrase Finder says
Legal and official documents have been bound with red tape since the 17th century and continue to be so.
And this is the source that most etymologists seem to agree on. (I think I first met it in the late Sixties, possibly in another David Crystal book.) But more recently I was told (in a trans-Atlantic teleconference, by a DEC employee who worked in the Mill at Maynard Mass., HQ for many years of that corporation), that it was a reference to the storage of military uniforms during the American Civil War – tied in bundles with red tape.
<rant flame="gentle">
It was the unquestioning self-confidence of this frankly ridiculous assertion that got my goat. What have military uniforms got to do with bureaucracy? [Yes, there is a bureaucracy related to the storage and distribution of such uniforms, and the person who organized it may have had the established legalistic usage in mind when he chose the colour of the tape, but still...]

Why must people claim that etymology is directly and unequivocally linked to their own culture? I'm reminded of the American tourist asking the Cambridge college porter about the secret of a perfect lawn: 'It's easy. Bung down a handful of seed and roll and mow and feed and water it for four or five hundred years.'

More and more of these phrases occur to me:

  • Ride shotgun (This one really is a Wild West thing I think. British coachmen were accompanied by protective partners, but I doubt if the position of armed passenger involved a shotgun.)
  • Ride roughshod over (More recently we refer to other technology/transport – 'to steam-roller', or 'to railroad' – but a horse was roughshod so as to make progress regardless of the state of the ground. A similar change of technology underlies the spawning of motorcade from another equine word: cavalcade [a procession of horses].)
  • Champing at the bit (Eager to get started,  like a horse before an effort  a race, perhaps)
  • The going['s good] (There are many others that refer particularly to horse-racing
    –  coming up on the inside/on the rails, dark horse, play the field, the full SP ["Starting Prices"], back a winner, put something through its paces [the paces being Walk, Trot, Canter, Gallop] win at a canter, down to the wire...)
  • On a tight rein (Under tight control; a canine version of this is on a short leash. Rather than keeping someone on a tight rein you might give them their head [let the driven thing decide for itself how to progress], and if you don't like their choice you can always rein them in.)
  • Look a gift-horse in the mouth (Inspect a present for defects; buyers inspect horses' teeth)
But times a-wastin'. The proofs won't read themselves.


Update 2014.01.28.13:40  – Added afterthought in red.
Update 2014.01.30.10:20  – Added linking afterthought  in purple. (Which reminds me of Sheridan [senior]'s:
We write with ease to show our breeding 
But easy writing's curst hard reading.
Well I understood the link when I dashed off the post, but on rereading I see that I'm expecting a bit much of my readers. Technical writers – among whom I once numbered myself overlook this sort of thing  at their peril.)

Update 2014.02.07.10:10 – Added PS

<autobiographical_note date_range="mid-sixties" theme="horse-based metaphors">
In the bookcase mentioned in an earlier post there was a small, red, clothbound edition of Dumas père's Le Vicomte de Bragelonne. I'm not sure why the title wasn't translated , as the rest of the book was. Whenever the musketeers galloped after the Cardinal's men, or Milady, or someone of  equally dubious morality (they did a lot of that, galloping) the translator would throw in a snippet of French to add local colour. I've no idea whether the phrase is current in today's French , but they always rode ventre-à-terre ('stomach to the ground'). I wonder whether this is related to our 'flat out' (in the sense 'as fast as possible', rather than the arriviste 'definitely'). I doubt it, but it'd be neat if it was.... (FFS as they say in the international standards world: For Future/Further Study  could this be another horsey metaphor?)

 Mammon When Vowels Get Together V5.2: Collection of Kindle word-lists grouping different pronunciations of vowel-pairs. Now complete (that is, it covers all vowel pairs –  but there's still stuff to be done with it; an index, perhaps...?)

And if you have no objection to such promiscuity, Like this.

Freebies (Teaching resources: over 37,000 views  and 5,140 downloads to date**. They're very eclectic - mostly EFL and MFL, but one of the most popular is from KS4 History, dating from my PGCE, with 1867 views/867 downloads to date. So it's worth having a browse.)

** This figure includes the count of views for a single resource held in an account that I accidentally created many years ago.

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