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Tuesday, December 15, 2015

Let's get this strai(gh)t

I was reading something this week that referred to someone's "straightened financial circumstances". 

What they meant was "straitened". "Strait(en)" and "straight(en)" are two altogether different words that just ended up being pronounced the same way.

"Straight" (i.e. not crooked) started out as a past participle of "stretch" (strecchen in Old English). If something was strecht or streght (with a throat-clearing "ch" sound) to its full extent, it obviously had no kinks in it, so "straight" evolved on its own, independently from "stretch", to mean "with no bends". Over time we lost the phlegmy "ch/gh" in the pronunciation (but of course not in the spelling, we are English after all) and ended up with a pronunciation identical to that of the completely different word, "strait"

"Strait" came into English after "strecht/streght/straight", from the Old French word estreit (tight, close, narrow), which became in modern French étroit. This word derived from the Latin strictus, the past participle of stringĕre (to tighten, bind tightly). So the meaning of (e)streit was the complete opposite of streght: instead of describing something stretched to its maximum, it described something restricted to its minimum, usually causing hardship. 

Close-fitting garments were "strait"; houses and rooms and cages were "strait"; paths and mountain passes and narrow bodies of water were "strait".

Just as your accommodation could be "strait", so could your financial circumstances. We can all identify with a character from the Canterbury Tales  who complains, "My wages been ful streite and ful smale."

(E)streit/strait was also a noun designating a narrow or tight place, a narrow body of water, and a distressing circumstance.

Surprisingly for a word that has had many useful meanings since it first landed in English in the 14th century, "strait" is now only alive for the narrow body of water, and in a few expressions. Even in those, it is losing the battle against the much better known "straight". 

straitlaced: originally this meant "wearing a bodice or corset that was tightly laced", but very quickly came to apply to people with strict or rigid moral attitudes. It and "straitjacket" are now also spelled "straightlaced" and "straightjacket" frequently enough that dictionaries list these as variants; indeed "straightlaced" is the more common spelling in the Oxford English Corpus.

"Dire (or desperate) straits" is such a fixed expression in English that you might think it has been with us forever, but in fact it is relatively recent. The earliest example I could find of "dire straits" referred to literal straits (the body of water) in 1780:
The Argonautics of Apollonius Rhodius: In Four Books
"When now the heroes through the vast profound
Reach the dire straits with rocks encompass'd round"

The earliest metaphorical use I could find was in an 1809 translation of plays by Euripides
MENELAUS. Shall I submit My hands in silence to the galling chain ?

HELEN. You know not how to act in these dire straits To which we are reduc'd

For "desperate straits", the earliest I could find was from a book called The Way Made Plain by James Hall Brookes, dating from 1816:

The Russian mother, who threw one and another, and then another, of her children to the howling wolves pursuing her sleigh, showed the desperate straits to which she was driven to save her life ;
Straitened circumstances have been with us since the 1600s, and this particular expression is going strong, along with "straitened times". Although the urge to spell it "straightened" is no doubt strong, editors have managed, judging by corpus evidence, to keep this at bay.

Who knows, though, if "straightjacket" and "straightlaced" are any indicator, perhaps "straitened" will eventually become "straightened".  

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  1. Amazing timing - I was just trying to defend my use of "straitened texts" to describe overediting. I think it works . . .

  2. I suppose texts could be both straitened and straightened by editing! I think straitened for overedited is a great image. The text struggling in a straitjacket or as if in a strait-laced corset.

  3. Thanks - it's always hard to decide whether to keep a phrasing that someone challenges. I like it, but evidently it looks like a typo.

  4. Hello,

    I wonder what the story of "dire" is ...


  5. Dear Wordlady:
    I learned somewhere in the dim past that a hamlet is a small village centred around a church. Now the Maclean's Magazine Quiz (Jan. 4, 2016, p.88) says that a hamlet is a village too small to have a church. Which is the traditional understanding of the word "hamlet"?

    1. OED says this: a. A group of houses or small village in the country; esp. a village without a church, included in the parish belonging to another village or a town. (In some of the United States, the official designation of an incorporated place smaller than a village.) Merriam-Webster simply says "a small village". It doesn't seem that churchlessness (or otherwise) is a defining characteristic


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Canada's Word Lady, Katherine Barber is an expert on the English language and a frequent guest on radio and television. She was Editor-in-Chief of the Canadian Oxford Dictionary. Her witty and informative talks on the stories behind our words are very popular. Contact her at wordlady.barber@gmail.com to book her for speaking engagements; she can tailor her talks to almost any subject. She is also available as an expert witness for lawsuits.