Mark Abley is a writer living in Montreal. He is the author of the 2018 book Watch Your Tongue: What Our Everyday Sayings and Idioms Figuratively Mean.
When Justin Trudeau strolled to Rideau Hall on Wednesday, he wasn’t paying the Governor-General a social call: With pomp and Mountie circumstance, he went to Julie Payette to ask for permission to kick off an election campaign that has unofficially been going on for months. But on places that feed on pedantic arguments (in other words, on social media), the conversation wasn’t as much about Mr. Trudeau’s policies and his party’s chances of winning a renewed majority. It was about the phrase “drop the writ” – or, as parliamentary and linguistic purists would prefer, “draw up the writs.”
“Draw up” was indeed the original verb, referring to the 338 writs, or documents – one for every seat in Parliament – that have to be crafted and then issued to actually launch an election for each individual riding. But “drop the writ” is more than just “a debased form of the phrase,” as Wikipedia asserts in an unusually judgmental manner. It has been used in this country through at least the past four decades, and it even makes a certain amount of intuitive, Canadian-only sense: A hockey game gets under way when the puck is dropped, not when the starting lineups are drawn up.
Indeed, “drop the writ” is largely a Canadian idiom – it would make no sense in Washington, and it’s rarely used in London. The phrase appears in Katherine Barber’s splendid book Only in Canada, You Say, along with a surprising number of other political terms that are familiar in this country but seldom heard elsewhere. “Advance poll” is a good example: it’s absent from the latest edition of the massive Oxford English Dictionary. “By acclamation” started life here and has now begun to spread to the United States; “leadership race,” an unavoidable concept in Canadian politics, only recently entered British English.
Many of us appreciate a new idiom when we come across it. “Manitoba mascara” is one of my favourites; in its depiction of frost condensing on eyebrows and eyelashes, then refreezing, it’s a brilliant coinage that evokes the extreme cold of a Winnipeg winter. But new idioms are sometimes born by accident. In 2003, Brad Miller – a star player for basketball’s Indiana Pacers – tried to explain why his team had run into trouble. “It’s not going to be peaches and gravy all the time,” he remarked. It wasn’t so much a mixed metaphor as a mixed idiom – an unforeseen blend of “peaches and cream” with “the gravy train.” To a modest extent the phrase has taken off and, on the Urban Dictionary website of contemporary slang, is now defined as “the state of being totally fine.”
Idioms are always in a state of evolution. Yet once we’ve grown used to a particular idiom, we often dislike hearing variations on it. Flights of poetic fancy and athletes’ misstatements are among the countless means by which the English language evolves, but evolution can also lead to obstinacy. The ancient saying “the proof of the pudding is in the eating” indicates that to know the quality of anything, you have to give it a try. That idiom goes back to the early 17th century, a time in Britain when most “puddings” were stuffed entrails (still on a savoury note, the word “pudding” is a likely source for that inimitably Québécois dish, poutine). But the expression we have trimmed it to – “the proof is in the pudding” –makes little sense except as an answer to the question, “What are we having for dessert tonight?” Still, North Americans have grown accustomed to the shorter version, and we’re unlikely to restore the eating.
It’s not always mere pedantry to attempt to salvage an older sense of an idiom. “Money is the root of all evil” comes from the Bible, where Paul advises Timothy that “The love of money is the root of all evil.” The absence of those three opening words makes a ton of difference to the idiom’s meaning. Until recently, “beg the question” had a precise and subtle meaning – it referred to a form of circular reasoning. The sentence “Justin Trudeau is the most popular leader in Canada today because more Canadians like him than any of his rivals" is an example of question-begging on a grand scale – it suggests that something is true simply because it’s the truth. It would be a shame if this original meaning of “beg the question” disappeared – or if “I couldn’t care less” were swallowed up by the absurdly inaccurate “I could care less.”
But in the end, whether you or I are happy about it, “beg the question” has come to mean the same for most people as “raise the question.” The history of English is littered with worthy figures taking a principled and hopeless stand against the evils of current usage. In 1930, for example, the authors of a once popular book entitled The King’s English complained: “There are certain American verbs that remind Englishmen of the barbaric taste illustrated by such town names as Memphis … A very firm stand ought to be made against placate, transpire and antagonize.”
A similar stand is being taken now by those who feel antagonized by the so-called debasement of “drop the writ.” History suggests that they will not be placated by how events transpire.
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