20 August 2014

In praise of phrase

by Robert Lopresti

Back in July I wrote about some new uses of words.  Since then I've noticed some phrases that I want to talk about, and most of them, oddly enough, were coming out of my own mouth.

For starters, I recently called an HMO office and got a recorded message that started something like this:  "Thank you for calling XXX. Payment for all services is due at the time of the appointment.  We take cash, check, or credit card.  If this is a life-threatening emergency, please hang up and dial 911--"

I thought about the order of those remarks and said: "Well, that's nailing your flag to the mast."

Jack Crawford statue
Jack Crawford monument
photo credit: Craigy144, Wikipedia
Which it is, but where does that phrase come from?  (It is sometimes given as nailing your colors (or colours) to the mast, colors being a nautical word for flag.)

It turns out to be a very specific flag, and a very specific mast. In 1797 the English navy fought the Dutch at the Battle of Camperdown.   The Dutch were the most powerful naval force in Europe at the time and they set out to prove it.  Admiral Adam Duncan was leading the British forces from the ship Venerable.  Its mast was shot down, taking the admiral's flag.  Since lowering your flag is a sign of surrender both sides watched to see what would happen next.

A sailor named Jack Crawford promptly climbed up what was left of the mast and nailed the flag to the top.  With this bit of daring for inspiration the English went on to win.  By the time the ship reached port Crawford was a hero.  (And like far too many war heroes, he drank himself to death.)

The phrase has two meanings: Crawford's, which is refusal to surrender, and mine, which means, showing your true principles.

And speaking of principles, one of mine is that you shouldn't claim someone said something they didn't.  Doesn't sound controversial, but all over the web you will find bogus quotations.  

Not long ago I saw a picture on Facebook that showed an unflattering shot of Oprah Winfrey, with a pretty dumb quote attributed to her.  Next to her is a flattering photo of Dr. Ben Carson with a witty reply to her comment.  It was set up as if this had been a genuine conversation, but was it?

My immediate reaction: "I don't carry any water for Oprah, but that sounds awfully pat."

You can guess where this is going, right?  To carry water for means to perform menial or unpleasant tasks for someone, presumably because you agree with them on some principle or political point.  It seems to date back to the seventies and is assumed to be based on the water boy, one of the lowest ranked of a team's staff.

But what about the word pat?  It has many meanings, of course, but the Oxford English Dictionary says that by the 1580s it already meant fitting, readily, opportunely. 

Which is close to the way I meant it, but not quite.  Merriam-Webster nails it: suspiciously appropriate.
photo credit: Nancy W Beach (own work)
[CC-BY-SA-3.0 via Wikimedia Commons]

Now, here is a pop quiz.  Please fill in the missing word of each phrase:

1.  I don't care how the argument is settled.  I don't have a dog in that ________.

2.  He said I was good for my age, which I took as a _______-handed compliment.

If you said you don't have a dog in that race you are in the majority, according to Google.  127,000 uses of that phrase appear in the Great All-knowing Search Engine.  118,000 uses prefer  fight, which is the way I have always heard it.  I can't help thinking that race is a later euphemism.

As for the compliment, if you said back-handed the Googleocracy supports you.  There are 678,000 examples, compared to to 398,000 for left-handed.
Personally  I prefer left-handed and I am nailing my flag to the mast, southpaw style.


  1. Fascinating...in so many words. :-)

  2. Rob, I wonder if the answers to the pop quiz are related to age or location. Mine were the same as yours: fight and left. I agree wholeheartedly with quotes attributed to people who never said or wrote them.

  3. Correction: I don't agree with the misquotes; I agree with your condemnation of them.

  4. Ah, Dale thinks you ARE carrying water ... evidently as a "Regimental Bhisti." Which is where I'd always thought the phrase originated -- with Europeans using "native bearers" (a practice unfortunately akin, and sometimes identical to, slavery) -- though I'm hardly knowledgeable in such etymological realms. Thus, you're probably right.

    My favorite "nail the flag to the mast" story is during John Paul Jones's fight between his Bonhomme Richard and HMS Serapis.

    Great column, Rob!

  5. Rob, fun with phrases.
    Like Dale and Dix, my thoughts turned to Rudyard Kipling's Gunga Din for carrying water.

  6. Great column. I love this kind of thing.

    By the way, I would nail my flag to the left-handed fight. I agree, back-handed and race somehow don't sound as good.

  7. Rob, as a lefthander I am all too familiar with the word "left" being used in a negative way. Two left feet. Out of left field. If you are correct, you are "right", not "left". One gets "left" behind. The position of honor is on the right.

    I could go on, but you get the point. That being said, I answered "left" to your quiz.

  8. Herschel, that's even true in other languages. Our words from the French, adroit and gauche, literally mean 'to the right' and 'left'.

  9. Yes, Leigh, and sinister, as I understand it, is Latin for "left". I'm beginning to feel unwanted.

  10. Zeke Hoskin pointed out "don't have a dog in that HUNT" comes up even more often in Google. Never heard that one.

  11. Rob, I was smiling through this. But you make some excellent points, particularly about those two-box comparison quotes.
    And Fran, I think age and location may indeed be important. I was personally stumped by "I don't have a dog in that ____" Never heard the expression before. Could this be because I am Canadian?

  12. Melodie. Huh. I guess they dont have dogs up there.

  13. Regarding dogs and hunting, the idiom I recall using that particular combination is, "That dog won't hunt," meaning that a particularly theory or line of inquiry is a dead end.


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