Yeah, they’ll eat it, but they really want pizza.

Dear Word Detective: I’m interested in the word “haymaker.” It is described as a powerful knockout punch. It is said to have been derived from an Old English word “heymakere.” Could you tell me how this name came about? — Dominique.

horsie08.pngHey, hay. I know all about hay, although when we first moved to the country, I kept saying “straw” when I meant “hay” and vice-versa. No wonder they wouldn’t let me have a horse. My question is why they stopped baling hay into little rectangular bundles and started producing those huge rolls of hay that you see sitting in the fields. I suspect that the whole “hay roll” thing was dreamed up to make rural landscapes more appealing to magazine photographers. There is, incidentally and predictably, an entire website devoted to artistic images of hay and haymaking to be found at www.hayinart.com.

“Hay” is, of course, grass and other plants (alfalfa, clover, etc.) grown, harvested and dried as food for livestock. (“Straw” is the stalks of grain left after threshing, and, being inedible, is used for animal bedding and basket weaving.) Although “making hay” is done with machinery today, it used to be backbreaking physical labor very important to the survival of a farm. The hay needed to be harvested (originally by hand using scythes) and then dried in the fields for days until it was gathered. The importance of haymaking (and the danger of putting off the task until too late in the season) was memorialized way back in the 16th century in the adage “Make hay while the sun shines,” meaning “Do what needs to be done while you have the chance.”

“Hay,” being so central to human culture, is a very old word, derived from a prehistoric Germanic root meaning “that which is cut.” Figurative uses of “hay” include “hay” as slang for money, “hit the hay” meaning “go to sleep” (from the use of hay as bedding), and “hayseed” as a derogatory urban term for a rural “bumpkin” (who was imagined to have grass seed in his hair).

“Haymaker” meaning “powerful punch” harks back to the actual process of harvesting hay in the age of the scythe. The scythe, a long, curved blade on a long crooked handle, is wielded with a broad, swinging stroke. (A “sickle” is a similar but smaller blade on a short handle.) It takes a surprising amount of strength to use a scythe, and a farmhand accustomed to the chore would have a fearsome punch. Thus “haymaker,” which back in the 1400s simply meant “one who harvests and gathers hay,” came to mean, by the early 20th century, a devastating punch delivered with the same broad, powerful swing used in harvesting hay.

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