Mammoth cheese, one nation, and shagging: Thomas Jefferson in the OED

To count to ten when angry, doll-baby, Irish-Americanleaf lettuce, Megalonyx, N.Y., Riesling, sanction? The man who gave us “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness” has also left us an incredible record of words in the English language.

“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” In this one passage, this single sentence, of the Declaration of Independence—whose adoption on July 4, 1776 Americans commemorate today—Thomas Jefferson gives a new nation, a new democracy, its immortal, founding words.

But Jefferson’s words have left many other marks. In fact, the Oxford English Dictionary (OED) attributes to Jefferson over 100 quotations that provide the first evidence of a word in English and nearly 400 quotations that provide the earliest record of a particular meaning. His breadth is truly impressive, ranging from architecture (rooflet, 1825; remodeling, 1785) and botany (leaf lettuce, 1795; rubber tree, 1826) to wines (Médoc, 1793; Riesling, 1788) and extinct giant sloths (Megalonyx, 1796; megatherium, 1797).

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“Writing the Declaration of Independence, 1776,” Jean Leon Gerome Ferris, 1863-1930. (Wikimedia Commons)

Continue reading “Mammoth cheese, one nation, and shagging: Thomas Jefferson in the OED”

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Why do we call a tie a “draw”?

In his autobiography, Thomas Jefferson wrote: “If he lost the main battle, he returned upon you, and regained so much of it as to make it a drawn one.” Here, Jefferson is describing a legislative fight over land tenure, but some pundits might think it well characterizes Donald Trump’s performance in the second presidential debate. This quote isn’t just timely, though: It also points to the origin of why we call “ties” draws.

Draw

By the Oxford English Dictionary’s (OED) reckoning, the earliest record of draw, as in a contest that ends with no winner, comes in reference to an 1856 US chess match. Over the next few decades, writers marked off draw with quotes or italics, which shows the word was novel. The word was familiar by the 1870s.

This draw is short for draw-game, which the OED finds for a “tie” by 1825. A draw-game, in turn, is a variation on a drawn battle or drawn match. The OED dates drawn match to a 1610 letter from English diplomat Sir Dudley Carleton: “It concluded, as it is many times in a cock pit, with a drawn match; for nothing was in the end put to the question.” (Before pilots occupied them, game-cocks fought in cockpits.)

Why such a battle or match is characterized as “drawn” is unclear: Indeed, etymology often ends in draws. Drawn may be clipped from withdrawn, as in fighters who have withdrawn from the battlefield. Withdraw, “to take back or away,” features an old and original sense of the preposition with, “against,” even though it now, ironically enough, means “together.” Draw, meanwhile, is related to drag. And withdraw itself might be a calque, or loan translation, of Latin’s retrahere, “to retract.”

With some seeing the debate – set up as a town hall with drawn voters, so to speak – as a draw, we’ll see whether or not many GOP politicians continue withdrawing their support from Trump following the leak of his lewd comments. Either way, it certainly feels like none of us are winners when a presidential debate has to be dragged down so low.

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Why are efforts described as “last-ditch”?

Recently, I’ve come across a number of articles describing the Republican establishment’s “last-ditch efforts” to stop their party’s nomination of Donald Trump for the U.S. presidency:

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Screen capture by me, March 22, 2016

But why do we call these efforts “last-ditch”?

In the etymological trenches

In 1706, English writer Daniel Defoe published Jure Divino, a verse satire in which he extolled William I, the Prince of Orange, famed for leading Dutch rebels against a tyrannical Spain in the 16th century. In a footnote, Defoe shares an anecdote told of William:

Of this [the Prince of Orange] gave an unparallel’d Instance, when being reduc’d to great Difficulties, in the fame War, and press’d by the French, in the Bowels of his native Country, on one Hand, and the English, with their Navy, on the other; and the English Ambassadors offer’d him, in the Names of the Kings of England and France, to take the whole Country, and then restoring it to him, form it into a Monarchy, and make him King of it: He rejected it with the utmost Indignation; and when One of them ask’d him what Remedy he could think of for the Ruin of his Affairs, answer’d, He knew One effectual Remedy, viz. to lie in the last Ditch; intimating, that he would dispute every Inch of Ground with the Enemy, and at last would die defending the Liberties of his Country.

For the source of the anecdote, I should note, Defoe cites Sir William Temple’s Memoirs, referring to an important English diplomat of the day whose writings Jonathan Swift, it happens, published.

So, from the dry moats dug around castles to the trenches of the First World War, warfare was long fought in the trenches – or ditches . The last ditch, then, was quite literally the “last line of defence” against an enemy’s siege, as the Oxford English Dictionary glosses it.

(Perhaps the military origins of last ditch were obvious to you. I, for one, never made the made connection. )

And, if the Prince of Orange is indeed the originator of last ditch, he would have so uttered it in Early Modern Dutch, making the English expression, of course, a translation. I’m not quite sure how the Prince of Orange would have said it in Early Modern Dutch: Perhaps something, and do forgive me, my Dutch-speaking readers, along the lines of laatse greppel?

Some last-ditchery of last-ditch

The last ditch expression proved to be a useful one, frequently appearing in the phrase to die in the last ditch in its early, political history. Thomas Jefferson even employed it in his own autobiographical writings when he described a “government…driven to the last ditch by the universal call for liberty.”

Now, the Oxford English Dictionary cites the adjectival form, usually hyphenated, for a resistance “maintained to the end” by 1888. The more metaphorical last-minute attempts to “avert disaster,” which prevails in today’s parlance, appears by 1930, according to the dictionary. Last-ditch effort appears at least by 1944; the OED cites it in Billboard, as in the pop music charts, then published in Cincinnati, OH.

Ditch itself is an old word, rooted in the Old English díc, a “trench” or “moat,” which also yields dike and derives from a Germanic base.

The OED also records the the wonderful forms last-ditchery (“fighting to the last ditch”; 1889) and the earlier last-ditcher (“one who fights to the last ditch”; 1862) – which might lend a little and much-needed whimsy to the tense and heated political discourse these days.

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