Archery and the English Language

Historically, English originated from the fusion of languages and dialects, now collectively termed Old English, which were brought to the eastern coast of Great Britain by Germanic (Anglo-Saxon) settlers by the 5th century.  While doing some researching on the web, I discovered that archery has had some effect on the development of the Modern English Language. Although, not all of what is listed here has a universally accepted origin in archery, I found it very interesting and I thought it was worthy of sharing.

Sin” derives from Old English synn, (9th century). The same root appears in several other Germanic languages, e.g. Old Norse synd, or German Sünde. The Greek word hamartia (ἁμαρτία) is usually translated as sin in the New Testament. In Classical Greek, it means “to miss the mark” or “to miss the target” also used in Old English archery.

Underhand” means “surreptitious” or on the sly. The Chambers Dictionary adds “with the hand below the elbow or shoulder”.  The origin of the term comes from Archery. A well known lover of archery, Roger Ascham  wrote: “Thus the underhande [shaft] must have a small breste, to go cleane awaye oute of the bowe.” To shoot underhand was and is a common archery term.

Upshot” is the final shot in an archery match.

Golf”, there is no universally accepted derivation for the word ‘golf.’  One of the most common misconceptions is that the word GOLF is an acronym for Gentlemen Only Ladies Forbidden which is not true. The first documented mention of the word ‘golf’  is in Edinburgh on 6th March 1457, when King James II banned ‘ye golf’, in an attempt to encourage archery practice, which was being neglected.

Point-blank” meaning “too close to miss” started in the middle ages, archery and artillery targets were usually white (or ‘Blanc’). The ‘point’ in the term may have referred to the point of the arrow that was about to be fired – if the point coincided with the target in the archer’s eye-line then the target would be hit, so long as it was within ‘point-blank range’ OR another interpretation is that ‘point’ just meant ‘pointing at the (blanc) target’.

Swing a cat”  meaning not enough space, is believed to be either a sport, or an essential part of target practice for the yeomen of England, cats were swung by their tails or imprisoned in either in a sack, or in leather bottle and suspended from the limb of a tree for target practice.

Rule of thumb” This phase is most likely used as a form of measure however it is believe to refer to the bracing height of a longbow. If a longbow is strung correctly, there’s just enough space to fit your hand in the ‘thumb’s up’ position between the string and the wood.

Picking a quarrel”  or picking a fight comes from the use of a crossbow bolt (arrow) which is known as a “quarrel”. One picked this carefully as you had to make sure that your first, and possibly only, shot hit the target – otherwise you might end up being “shafted” yourself

Shoot one’s bolt” or shoot one’s wad means to do all within one’s power to exhaust one’s resources or capabilities. The first expression comes from archery and is referred to as using up all of one’s bolts (short, heavy arrows fired with a crossbow); it was a proverb by the 1200s. Later “Wad” refer to money.

Straight as an arrow” is obvious, arrows were, out of necessity, straight.

A bolt from the blue” was likely to arrive when an archer fired a shot high up into the air, before it plunged to the ground

Wide of the mark” or beside the mark meaning not to the point, a phase from archery were mark is referring to the target.

High-strung” or highly strung has at least two possible origins for the phrase, one from stringed musical instruments and the other from archery, the latter from a bow which has been over-strung, with a too-short string. The implication with both possibilities is that a bow with a string too tight is on the verge of some sort of breakdown, just as with a person who it’s suggested is “highly strung” is nervy and jumpy and not completely in control.

Parting Shot” comes from the term “Parthian shot”, is a horseback archery term used to describe a shot taken over a horse’s rump as you are retreating.

The Village Idiot” was usually a town member would was not allowed in Sunday morning church because they were likely to disturb the sermon.  They would be in charge of the butts at the range and also watch over the bows since they were not allowed in church. After practice he would don a wooden body shield and the archers took turns shooting blanked arrows for fun.

The above list have a general consensus for some phrases that may have roots in archery however some may be considered “Folk Etymology” and this list was comprised via websites, forums and blogs and is not meant to be complete or even 100% accurate.  It is meant to illustrate how archery is part of our history, culture and even the language we speak.

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3 thoughts on “Archery and the English Language

  1. Very interesting collection of terms here. It’s nice to see a not-so-formal collection of terms being used. I did put together a list of archery terms but it’s more the formal direction. I may have to think about adding a more laid back collection of terms. Thanks for the idea and great post!

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