"Over a Barrel"


Riding my usual hobby horse today: the double [sometimes, opposite] meanings of certain figures of speech. When you hear the title phrase, do you think “at someone’s mercy,” or “having been rescued from near-drowning, being draped over a barrel to clear the lungs of sea water”? According to all my UK etymological sources, the latter is the first meaning; and it supposedly originated in the States in the 1800s. Only later, in the early 1900s, did it come to mean “being hazed, as in a college fraternity ritual.” Also, supposedly, an exclusively American practice.

Oh, yeah? Well, I’ve just been browsing the British House of Commons debates from 1846 and 1906, concerning punishment by flogging in the Royal Navy. [Actually, I knew about this before, but it’s a trip to read the debates verbatim.] In the former debate, a bill was put forth stipulating that flogging could be legally administered only after a Court Martial [not just at the whim of any officer on board]; and the 1906 bill advocated the abolition of flogging, altogether. Incidentally, the euphemism for a sailor’s being tied to the barrel of a ship’s cannon, in the proper position to receive up to 48 lashes with a cat-o’-nine-tails, was “kissing the gunner’s daughter.” And when someone says of a tight space, that “there’s hardly room to swing a cat,” they are referring to this man-made flayer of human flesh [not a pussycat]. On some ships, though, a milder version of flogging for sailors under the age of 16 substituted a whip of 5 [not 9] strands, without the 3 knots per strand, which was called a “boy’s cat” or “pussy.”

And now, to the [metaphorically] related topics of a modern form of child discipline in America [the Time Out], on the one hand, and invasive medical procedures, on the other. Consider first the aphorism, “A kitchen contractor is a vandal that you pay; and a surgeon is an assailant that you pay.” Partly because of the truth of the first statement, more and more of us opt to Do-the-Home-Improvement-Ourselves; but very few of us opt to perform surgery on ourselves [not even physicians]. So we pay [or at least co-pay] to be assaulted [you know, like, cut open], in the hope that some good will come of it. No matter how much reasoning with yourself you do, about why a given procedure is necessary, there’s no escaping the Big Four irritants: the intrusion, the humiliation, the fear, and the pain & suffering. And what if the procedure doesn’t even purport to be curative, but only diagnostic? [Let your wolf mull that over a bit.]

So, back to Time Out. When a parent says to her/his obstreperous child, “Do you want a Time Out?” I always wonder if they really mean, “Do you want a [mild form of] punishment?” or “Do you want to take a moment to try to compose yourself [with a variant of Zen meditation]?” Is it a threat or a Serving Suggestion? Is it rhetorical [like “Do you want to make a scene?”], or is it Conative? Remember, way back in the beginning of this blog, Jakobsen’s 6 Speech Functions; and one of them was to Give an Order [Even to Oneself]? So, either “Do you want a Time Out?” is a roundabout way of saying “Do you want to pipe down?” or “Why don’t you pipe down?” or even “Pipe down, already!” Trouble with being Conative, though, is that it’s so in-your-face-and-on-your-case. It’s so I-am-the-boss-of-you: so…Packer Leader. [Mull it over.]

When, as a Lieutenant Commander, I used to stand the ER watch at Newport Naval Hospital, back in the day, with my [future] husband, I got to listen to him try to avoid giving direct orders to his patients [even though, as a Naval Officer, he outranked most (not all) of them, especially the drunk & disorderly sailors who made up the lion’s share of our nighttime clientele]. “Why don’t you get up on the exam table?” said he [rhetorically, I assume]. “Cuz I don’ wanna!” replied one under-age-but-way-over-the-limit young man. “Sailor, get yourself up on that table!” the future father of my future children commanded. And thus did an Able Bodied Seaman [a rank, not a diagnosis] begin his ordeal of intrusive, humiliating and painful [but life-saving] treatment for acute alcohol poisoning, for which, given the venue, he was not even charged a co-payment.

You might say that the Navy [and, especially, the ER treatment team] had him over a barrel.

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Filed under gets right up my nose, power subtext, semiotics

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