Wednesday, 7 April 2010

Haywire Straw Polls And The Grass Roots

I find few things more embarrassing than making an unintentional pun. Yesterday, a journalist told me that she had been watching the wires and I said that they must have been going haywire. Then I tried to hang myself. Then I started to wonder what haywire meant.

Hay wire is (amazingly) wire that you use to bind a bail of hay. Apparently its not as strong as normal wire and should never be used for repairs to machinery. If it is, then your machine will become a "haywire outfit". That may or may not be the reason that things go haywire. There's also the possibility that hay wire, like coat hangers and headphone wires, tangle themselves up horribly and that if something has gone haywire it simply means that it has become inextricably interwoven and loopy like the Gordian Knot (which was an actual knot in a place called Gordium, a problem that Alexander the Great solved at a stroke).

Straw polls are similarly enigmatic. Auden once said* of the relationship of a poet's biography to his work that it was simultaneously too obvious to need comment (Catullus loved Lesbia) and too obscurely complex to endure analysis. The same goes for these words of grass.

You do not, as Bob Dylan correctly observed, need a weatherman to know which way the wind blows. Shakespeare agrees and adds in The Merchant of Venice that an amateur zephyrologist can manage by:

Plucking the grass to know where sits the wind,

You throw a straw in the air and see which way the wind takes it. Hence a straw vote. Hence a straw poll, which elephantine-memoried readers of this blog will remember is a headcount.

OR, it is simply a weak poll, a poll of straw. Straw has always been weak as in straw dogs and straw men and clutching at straws etc etc which is why you only need hay wire to bind it together.

Grass roots is the third of these frail etymologies. It popped up at the beginning of the twentieth century. The roots I can understand, but the grass seems unnecessary. Why not dandelion roots, which are considerably stronger? English seems to be a strangely graminivorous language. But perhaps that's a good thing: hay fever used to be called summer catarrh, which is just horrible.

Or perhaps it's that grass roots are destroyed by GOATs. Now I'm off to accuse my lawn of informing on me to the police.**

The Inky Fool's summer residence

*In his preface to Shakespeare's sonnets. I don't have a copy to hand.
** A grass hand was a jobbing printer who moved employers, hence the sense of disloyalty, probably. A grass widow is an unmarried woman with a child (although I can't for the life of me see how that could happen). All flesh is grassy, bring on the lawnmower.


  1. Mr Dogberry,

    Grass is an expression of egalitarianism. Its roots are innumerous and indistinguishable. Dandelions stand alone, even in crowds. They are not mass movement material. As my Cantonese friend Jiang-Miau used to say back in the 1970s when he helped me import counterfeit Mao hats through Kowloon Island: Where the sunny flower grows, shadow falls on the manifold. I have no idea what he meant by that, but he was no Communist. Unfortunately, it is too late to ask him to elaborate.


  2. Well, I learned something today. Thanks so much for the post. Very fascinating. I always wondered where 'haywire' came from. Plant and Garden Blog

  3. It's funny how we use words and phrases like haywire grass roots without even thinking about where they come from. I tend to avoid them and dislike when others use them because I have always tended to take things literally -- it's part of my neurological condition and associated learning disability.

    My grade four teacher told me to "put your John Henry" on my report card. So instead of signing my name, I handwrote, John Henry. My mom still jokes about it. I never understood why my teacher wanted me to write, "John Henry."

  4. A grass widow is a married woman whose husband is absent on business. The phrase was used in India where wives went to the cool grassy hills in the hot season while their husbands toiled down in the hot brown plains. Read Kipling for details.

  5. The kids I teach are so used to me stopping in the middle of sentences and saying, 'I wonder where that saying I've just said comes from ...' Haywire would be that kind of thing. Sometimes the whole lesson is brought to a halt while I check it out on the Internet. I really do have trouble keeping to my lesson plans ..

  6. John B, you are absolutely right up to a point. The phrase Grass Widow was used in India in exactly that sense and, so far as anyone knew, for that reason.
    However, the phrase grass widow goes way further back, to 1528 in English and to Middle Low German graswedewe and modern German strohwitwe (straw widow). Back then it meant an unmarried woman with a child, perhaps because beds were stuffed with straw and she had, as it were, been married to her bed.
    The Victorians then took up the phrase changed its meaning and found a new explanation for it, or perhaps invented it completely independently.
    I would take a guess at the first explanation. C.F. Robert Browning on wimples.