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Grasping at straws

Last chance.

Dear Word Detective:  What is the origin of the phrase “grabbing at straws”?  And does it still have the same meaning as when it was first used?  I searched the archives and I am quite sure this has not been answered. — Michael Tambornino.

And you are quite correct.  You also get an automatic ten point bonus for checking our archives before asking your question.  There are about 1500 back columns available free there, so there’s a decent chance that whatever one might be seeking has already been sought.  But I really don’t mind if folks ask a question I’ve already answered.  Sometimes I even answer it again.

The original, and still the most literal, meaning of “straw” is the stems and stalks of grains, such as wheat, rye, oats, etc., left over after the grain has been threshed and the bits useful as food have been removed.  When we first moved from Manhattan to rural Ohio, I was under the impression that “straw” and “hay” were the same thing.  Wrong-o-rama.  Hay is essentially dried grass used as food for livestock.  Straw is used for many things (animal bedding, straw hats, etc.), but not as a primary food for livestock.

The source of our English word “straw” is a Germanic root with the general sense of “that which is strewn,” or scattered, a reference to the still common use of straw as a bedding or floor covering in barns, etc.  We inherited “straw” directly from the Old English “streaw,” and we’ve been piling new meanings and uses onto this little word ever since, from “straw” as a symbol of something worthless or insubstantial, to the “straw” that comes with a cold drink, in the 19th century an actual piece of straw, now a plastic tube.

Straw has also loomed large in English idioms and proverbs.  “Man of straw” or “straw man” (what we would call a “scarecrow”) has, since the 16th century, meant a dishonest person of no substance, an imaginary foe, or, most often today, an invented and bogus argument.  It was just one more straw (“the last straw”) that broke the proverbial camel’s back, and “a straw in the wind” has long been a metaphor for something that indicates a change in public attitudes, which gave us “straw poll” and “straw vote” as terms for quick, unofficial surveys of opinion.

“Grabbing at straws” (or “grasping,” today the more common form) comes from the very old proverb noted by Samuel Richardson in his novel Clarissa (1748): “A drowning man will catch at a straw, the proverb well says.”  The “straw” in this case refers to the sort of thin reeds that grow by the side of a river, which a drowning man being swept away by a fast current might desperately grasp in a futile attempt to save himself.  Thus “grasp at straws” has, since at least the 18th century, meant “to make a desperate and almost certainly futile effort to save oneself” (“Bob’s attempt to build a case that the contract was not valid because it contained a split infinitive was just grasping at straws”).  “Grasping at straws” is still very much in use in this sense, as by one source quoted by the Associated Press in a recent news story on the economy: “People have to pay the bills, so what we see is people kind of grasping at straws and taking anything that’s available.”


Pitchfork this.

Dear Word Detective:  I know you’re the Word Detective and not the Usage Enforcer, but I just read an article in the Washington Post about the current health care debate that reminded me of something that’s been bothering me for the past few months.  The author of the piece proposes a new verb: “‘Medagogue’ [meaning] to demagogue the health care issue.”  Obviously, “medagogue” is a non-starter, but it’s the use of “demagogue” as a verb that’s been driving me nuts lately.  Is this kosher?  I can’t think of a simple replacement, but it really grates on my nerves. — Luke Hoover.

Oh boy, here we go.  You’re correct — I usually avoid issues of “proper usage” in English, although I’m more than happy to advise folks about what is generally accepted as Standard English at the moment.  But the so-called “language wars” over issues such as the use of “hopefully” to act as a meta-modifier of an entire sentence (“Hopefully, Jim will just shut up”) can chug along for another 200 years without me.  I don’t plan to spend my time arguing with people who consider “split infinitives” a harbinger of the Apocalypse.  The older I get, the more allergic I am to that kind of crazy.

But your question is not in any way crazy.  The use of “demagogue” as a verb strikes many people as less than euphonious.  “Demagogue” used as a noun, of course, raises no hackles (except those of the target).  The root of “demagogue” is actually quite honorable, being the Greek “demagogos,” meaning simply “leader of the people,” and in ancient times that’s all the word meant.  In English in the mid-17th century, however, “demagogue” came into use as a noun meaning, as the Oxford English Dictionary (OED) puts it, “a political agitator who appeals to the passions and prejudices of the mob in order to obtain power or further his own interests.”  H.L. Mencken more succinctly defined a demagogue as “one who will preach doctrines he knows to be untrue to men he knows to be idiots.”

The use of nouns as verbs is a pet peeve of usage purists, most of whom are unaware that at least one out of every five common English verbs began life as a noun, and that the transition to use of a given noun as a verb often happened several centuries ago.  “Demagogue” is just such a case, appearing as an intransitive verb meaning “to play the demagogue” in the mid-17th century (“When that same ranting fellow Alcibiades fell a demagoging for the Sicilian War,” 1656).  The use of “demagogue” as a transitive verb (as in your example “to demagogue the health care issue”) meaning “to deal with (a matter) after the fashion of a demagogue” (OED) is a more recent (1890) and more controversial development.   The Usage Panel of the American Heritage Dictionary rejects use of “demagogue” as a transitive verb by a ninety-four percent margin, for instance.  And the very fine new Garner’s Modern American Usage (Oxford University Press, 2009) has no real problem with the intransitive form but rates the transitive “demagogue” as a “Stage One Language Change,” meaning that it is generally not yet suitable in Standard English usage.

Your mileage may vary, of course.  I suppose “demagogue” as a transitive verb could be useful conversational shorthand, although I wouldn’t use it in serious writing.  But, given its popularity in current mass media usage, I wouldn’t be surprised to see it widely accepted sooner than many usage mavens would like.  As you note, it’s not easy to think of a simple alternative.

Gander (take a)

A Field Guide to Homicidal Waterfowl.

Dear Word Detective:  The phrase, “take a gander.”  This can’t possibly (I hope) have anything to do with the male of the goosey species, can it?  In any case, could you take a look in your reference books and see where “take a gander” came from?  My appreciation would flow gratefully. — William Blum.

Hmm.  Do I detect a smidgen of anti-goose sentiment in your question?  I would have hoped that we, as a species, would have transcended our resentment of geese long ago.  True, geese can be vicious, ungrateful and absurdly aggressive, and the bite of a goose can be surprisingly painful, especially considering that it comes from a creature that lacks actual teeth.  Come to think of it, geese spend most of their time eating — what?  Pond scum?  So where do they get off attacking innocent people in the park whose only mistake was in thinking that they were feeding bread to a nice, albeit very large, duck?  Anton, bring me my shotgun and a cookbook.

Just kidding.  I’m not allowed to play with either shotguns or cookbooks.  In any case, I’m afraid your suspicions are justified, and “gander,” meaning anything from “a glance” to “a close look” (“Now I am taking many a gander around the bedroom to see if I can case the box of letters,” Damon Runyon, 1934), does indeed pay tribute to the noble goose.  “Gander” in this sense is also a verb, but not as commonly encountered today as the noun.

A “gander” is, of course, a male goose, while a female goose is known simply as “a goose,” and a mixed gaggle of geese is referred to as “geese,” preferably from a distance.  The word “goose” itself comes from the Old English word for the bird, “gos,” which in turn is derived from an Indo-European root word (something like “gans”) that was probably intended to imitate the sound a goose makes.  The plural form “geese” is, etymologically speaking, the same word as “goose.”  The “ee” is simply a phonetic mutation of a sort common at one time in English, which can also be seen in such singular/plural pairs as “tooth/teeth” and “foot/feet.”  Our English word “gosling,” meaning a young goose, comes from the Middle English “gos” (goose) plus the diminutive suffix “ling.”

“Gander” as a name for a male goose is a bit of a mystery.  It may be simply a mutated form of “goose,” but there is some evidence that it originally meant an entirely different kind of bird, possibly a stork.  It may be that the alliterative phrase “goose and gander,” originally meaning two kinds of birds often found near water, eventually resulted in wide misunderstanding of the phrase as meaning “male and female” (as in “buck and doe,” “bull and cow,” etc.), and “gander” came to mean “male goose.”

The use of “gander” to mean “look” comes from the long, flexible neck of the goose (immortalized in the “gooseneck” lamps once common in offices).  While female geese no doubt  look at things too, it is the gander of a gaggle that plays sentinel, craning his neck to examine any intruder or possible danger.  “Gander” in this “peer at” sense first appeared in print in 1887, as a verb.  Interestingly, up until that time, “gander” as a slang verb had meant “to wander aimlessly,” and as a slang noun had meant “a stupid person.”

Incidentally, I used the verb “craning” in my explanation of “gander,” a verb also meaning “to stretch one’s neck in order to see something.”  “Crane” in this sense comes from the “crane,” a large bird similar to a stork and probably much nicer than a goose.  And “gaggle” for a group of geese arose in the 15th century as an imitation of the sound of many geese (probably massing for an attack).