Friday 14 May 2010

Druthers and Tar Babies

There are precisely a million and one little differences between American and British English. The Inky Fool once had to go on the run after stubbing out a fag butt in San Francisco. Here for the sake of mutual comprehension and edification are two strange and wayward usages from that strange and wayward continent:

A couple of days ago I got an e-mail from deepest, darkest America* that concluded:

If I had my druthers, each day would consist of 36 long hours. But some asshole stole my druthers.

Now the first thing I thought was obviously that he'd misspelled arsehole. The second thing I thought was that in ancient Rome the day was divided into twelve hours from dawn till dusk, which meant that during the summer an hour was actually longer. And then I noticed that I have no idea what druthers are.

A split google later I discovered that it's a shortening of would rather (to 'drather to druther) and is an exclusively American phrase meaning preference. The first recorded use is in an 1870 story called Centrepole Bill and goes:

If I was a youngster, I 'drather set up in any perfession but a circus-driver, but a man can't always have his 'drathers.

Which explains something, but not the spelling of Centrepole.

The second reason that I was considering odd Americanisms was a question on the Dear Dogberry page which I recently set up as a kind of agony aunt column. The question concerned an article in The Guardian by the bleeding-heart left-winger Norman Tebbit. He referred to the coalition between Tory and Liberal thus:

A marriage of convenience between those two political tar babies hugging each other to death might make an enjoyable spectacle, but the consequences for the country will be baleful.

Which is all well and good, but nobody in England knows what a tar baby is**. Well, children, once upon a time there was a fox and the fox wanted to kill a rabbit. So the fox took the obvious route of making a baby out of tar and putting a hat on it. The rabbit came past saw the tar baby and said hello. When the tar baby didn't reply the rabbit flew into a rage and attacked it, but as tar is sticky the rabbit became stuck. The more the rabbit tried to extricate himself the more trapped he became.

This story is of doubtful validity at best and there are naturalists who go so far as to dismiss it out of hand. It was a folk tale told in the plantations of the Deep South and was collected by a chap called Joel Chandler Harris and put into his Uncle Remus book.

As the whole point of tar babies is that they are inanimate it is hard to see how they could hug each other to death. There may even be a hint of a mixed metaphor somewhere between the married and homicidal babies.

There are Americans who believe the term to be racist. Americans can detect racism in the way that a compulsive gambler can detect that he'll be lucky today. There is a whole Wikipedia page devoted to Controversies about the word "niggardly".

So now we know about tar babies, but Americans don't know about Norman Tebbit. One country is the winner here, but I'm not sure which.

Norman Tebbit addressing a Guardian-reader

*I have never been to Williamsburg VA but imagine it to be both profound and gloomy.
** This assertion is based on my having conducted a rigorous survey of several people.


  1. Wonderful, wonderful post and well worth the wait.

  2. Fabulous start to my day, Dogberry. For one heart-stopping moment, I thought I would be able to tell YOU something - but then you Googled it.

  3. Williamsburg can only be imagined as profound and gloomy, for in all respects it is the precise opposite. Your assumptions merely compliment your correspondent.

  4. I love your blogs, but I must argue that Williamsburg, VA is actually amazing. It's famous for its living-history museum. It also is terribly sunny and hot, especially this time of year, so your belief that it is deep and dark is baseless. I do agree, however, with your assertion that Americans seem to see racism in everything.