Wednesday, November 03, 2010

Straw Poll

The term straw poll was bandied about recently by political pundits and several listeners wondered about its origin.

A straw poll is an unofficial poll or vote taken to see which way people are leaning or to discover hot-button issues. The results are not binding, but they may be useful to a pollster.

The term is related to “throwing straws into the wind,” a method used to this day by golfers to learn which way the wind is blowing so that they can compensate for it. In A Ruler of Men, O’Henry wrote, “A straw vote only shows which way the hot air blows.”

Several other popular terms and proverbs use the word straw.

  • draw the short straw: become the one selected for a task, especially an odious one. The leader holds straws in his hand in such a way that they all stick up to the same height, but one of them (concealed by his fist) is shorter than the others.
  • grasp at straws: make a desperate attempt to save oneself. However ineffective, a drowning man will clutch at flimsy reeds in order to survive.
  • make bricks without straw: perform a duty without the materials or information necessary to do it right. In early brickmaking, straw was the binding material for sun-dried bricks. This tracks back to Exodus 5:7.
  • straw boss: a foreman who gives orders but has no authority to enforce them. Late 19th century: “The (real) boss attended to the grain going into the thresher. The secondman (or straw boss) watched the straw coming out and hence had little to do.” [The Facts on file Encyclopedia of Word and Phrase Origins, Robert Hendrickson]
  • straw dog: the ancient Chinese used straw dogs in their sacrifices to the gods. In The Book of 5,000 Characters, Lao Tzu wrote, “Heaven and Earth are not humane. They regard all things as straw dogs . . .” In a modern business application, a straw dog is a deliberately expendable idea floated past a client to make the real proposition look even better.
  • strawfoot: Union Army slang for a raw recruit who still had straw from the farm stuck to his boots.
  • straw man: an imaginary enemy or an invented argument brought up in order to be triumphantly vanquished.
  • straw that broke the camel’s back: the final minor irritation or burden that sends things over the brink. By itself, it would be insignificant, but added to all that came before it, it has serious consequences. A variant is, “that’s the last straw.”

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

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