Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Left in the Lurch

Stan asked about the phrase, left in the lurch. In particular, he wondered how it was connected to a ship lurching in a storm.

A drunk can lurch down the street and a ship can lurch in rolling waves, but there is no connection to left in the lurch. That comes from an entirely different lurch. That lurch means left in a difficult or vulnerable position.

It probably came from a game akin to cribbage, a game called lorche. To have your marker stranded less than halfway home when your opponent’s marker had crossed the finish line was to suffer a humiliating defeat.

In turn, that probably came from a Germanic word (lurz) that meant left-handed, a term used to convey deception, clumsiness, and uselessness. I discussed the longstanding prejudice against left-handedness at length in my article, My Right Hand Man Has Two Left Feet.

The phrase appears in Thomas Nashe’s Have With You to Saffron Walden in an incredibly long sentence: “But being restored to the open air, the case with him was little altered, for no roof had he to hide his noddle in or whither he might go to set up his rest, but in the streets under a bulk he should have been constrained to have kenneled & chalked out his cabin if the same minister had not the second time stood his friend, and preferred him to a chamber at one Rolfe’s, a sergeant’s in Wood Street, whom (as I take it) he also procured to be equally bound with him for his new cousin’s appearance to the law, which he never did, but left both of them in the lurch for him, and running in debt with Rolfe beside for house-room and diet, one day when he was from home, he closely conveyed away his trunk forth of doors, and showed him a fair pair of heels.”

In his book about collective nouns, An Exaltation of Larks, James Lipton incorporated the staggering and bucking meaning of lurch to produce the pun “a lurch of buses.”

SIDEBAR: Ships Slammed by Storms & Waves

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

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