Sunday, March 01, 2009

The Parthians Take a Parting Shot

I was perusing a book the other day over a cup of mocha in a bookstore while waiting for my dog to be groomed at a nearby pet store. The book purported to give accurate explanations on the origin of phrases, but within minutes, I found several errors.

I mention this not because I wish to slam that particular book (after all, it joins several others on bookstore shelves today that are peppered with folklorish origin errors -- buyer, beware), but because of the explanation that it gives for “parting shot,” an explanation found elsewhere, too.

A parting shot is a cutting or derogatory remark made at the last second as one leaves the room. It permits no time for a response. The book to which I refer stated categorically that parting shot is a corruption of Parthian Shot. The Parthians were renowned warriors who specialized in a specific battleground tactic: riding on swift horses, they would pretend to retreat, then turn in the saddle to shoot a deadly volley of arrows at their pursuers. This allegedly, was the Parthian Shot.

The first instance of Parthian Shot cited in the Oxford English Dictionary comes in 1842. Before that, there are quotes using Parthian Fight, Parthian Conquest, Parthian Woman, and Parthian Apprentices. To my ear, Parthian Shot simply seems too bookish, too contrived, and too ostentatious to be the original form of parting shot. (That the phrase exists is indisputable; I'm talking cause and effect here.)

Parting shot has all the earmarks of a naval engagement. As a ship left a naval battle, even if fleeing, it would make sense to fire one last shot. If it hit the target, so much the better. At the very least, it was a dramatic gesture of defiance. And indeed, I found a confirming quote from 1818: “The consort, firing a parting shot, bore up round the north end of the island, and escaped.” [John McLeod] Another example comes from 1835: “A parting shot from the muskets of the seamen was made with a fatal effect.” [W.G. Simms] An even more dramatic example comes from 1862: “Water poured into the [Cumberland’s] hold; the ship canted to port, the masts swaying wildly. She delivered a parting shot and sank with the American flag at the peak.” [James Ford Rhodes]

I have no definitive evidence that parting shot originally came from the days of sail-driven warships, but I don’t see compelling evidence to corral the Parthians, either.

SIDEBAR: A Parting Shot: the game

Now available from McFarland & Co.: Word Parts Dictionary, 2nd edition

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