February 2, 2012

Weekly Language Usage Tips: cut and dry or cut and dried & hoist with his own petard

Posted in cut and dried/cut and dry, hoist with his own petard at 9:33 am by dlseltzer


Before we start today’s wlut, I wanted to follow-up on our semicolon discussion of last week. Not long after I sent out the wlut, a reader wrote:

So you can mix semicolons and commas to separate items after a colon—the deciding factor is whether or not there are internal commas in the items?

Oops! That’s not what I meant at all. Once you have to use a semicolon, you need to use it to separate all items in the list even if they don’t have internal commas.

Providers may find this intervention compelling for its potential to reduce staffing needs, including physicians, nurses, and other staff; facilitate communication among health care providers; supply a platform for the management of data; and for other reasons.

Even though there are no internal commas in the second and third items, semicolons are still needed. And it doesn’t matter where the item with internal commas is in the sentence. Once you see the need for a semicolon, all items need to be separated by semicolons.

Providers may find this intervention compelling for its potential to facilitate communication among health care providers; reduce staffing needs, including physicians, nurses, and other staff;  supply a platform for the management of data; and for other reasons.


This week we look at a couple of expressions that a reader noticed were being used incorrectly.

Tip 1: Cut and dry or cut and dried?

A reader writes:

Common expressions that might benefit from some discussion in wlut:

When a task is so routine that we can do it pretty much on autopilot, people often describe it as “cut and dry.”  I have always said “cut and dried,” on the theory that this is an agricultural metaphor that refers to hay or tobacco (or something like that) that is already brought in from the fields (cut) and ready for use or long term storage (dried).  So: “dry” or “dried”?

The reader is absolutely right. The expression is ‘cut and dried’ although ‘cut and dry’ is a common mistake. Whether it is an agricultural metaphor or should be attributed to some other sector or industry is a topic of some debate.

And the contestants are:

Some think that is referring to cutting slices of meat to dry in the sun, so the meat will become jerky and last over long travels.

Others use a lumber metaphor and think of planks of wood, newly sawed and drying in the sun.

[NOTE: every time I reread this, I want to use ‘sawn’ rather than ‘sawed,’ and ‘sawn’ is another correct form of the past tense of ‘saw.’]

Still others think that it refers to herbs sold in a shop as opposed to herbs that are growing.

Some note, as the reader did, that it could be related to cut hay drying in the sun.

Cut and dried tobacco is another popular choice.

I’ve also seen people opining that the expression refers to logs needing to dry before a fire can properly be set.

I’ve even found one reference to fish drying. I have no idea where that comes from.

What I love is how positive everyone is that their choice is correct. It is clear that there is nothing cut and dried about the origin of ‘cut and dried.’ Since my opinion is as baseless as everyone else’s, I’ll not address that. I just want to say that the expression means a couple of things. It means ‘routine,’ or ‘ordinary,’  but it can also mean ‘fixed’ or ‘not subject to change.’ And that makes sense, too; something that is routinized doesn’t change.

Okay, on to the next expression.

Tip 2: Hoist on one’s own petard

The same reader writes:

When someone has come to grief as a result of his or her own prior actions, is this person “hoist on (or by) his or her own petar (or petard)?

For this, there is a definitive answer for the phrase originated in Shakespeare’s Hamlet.

“For ’tis the sport to have the enginer / Hoist with his own petar…”

First, some definitions are needed. What the heck is a petard anyway? A petard was a container (could be box- or bell-shaped) that was filled with gunpowder to blow open a wall or door—basically a large bomb. When Shakespeare wrote ‘petar’ rather than ‘petard,’ there is speculation that he was making an off-color pun around the French word, péter, which refers to flatulence. But that’s neither here nor there.

And what about hoist? When Shakespeare wrote this, hoist did not mean ‘to raise or lift’ as it does today (and this is where folks are sometimes confused). Hoist was the past tense of hoise which meant ‘to throw up in the air.’

Finally, in Shakespeare’s day, the enginer was the engineer or builder of the war apparatus, in this case, the petard.

So what does this expression mean? If a petard had a faulty wick, it was apt to blow up prematurely, throwing the engineer up in the air. Shakespeare is saying that it’s fun to see the bomb builder blown up by his own bomb. We use the expression to refer to someone who was injured (figuratively) by his own device. I read recently that Governor Rick Perry was ‘hoist with his own petard’ due to the plethora of gaffes he made in his speeches and debates.

The expression is commonly used with ‘by’ or ‘on’ as well as ‘with,’ and all are correct and mean the same in this context.

For any Shakespeare buffs out there, the context in which Hamlet used this expression is this:

Claudius, Hamlet’s uncle (who, by the way, killed Hamlet’s father and married his mother) was plotting to kill Hamlet and sent two of Hamlet’s old friends (Rosencrantz and Guildenstern) to kill him. Hamlet, suspecting this treachery, arranged for his old friends to be killed instead; thus, Claudius (the engineer) was hoist by his own treacherous plan.

By the way, I loved the play Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead by Tom Stoppard when I saw it and when I read it many years ago; I strongly recommend it. You can also find the film version made in 1991, which I haven’t seen, but which stars Gary Oldman, Tim Roth, and Richard Dreyfuss. And finally, if you haven’t read Hamlet, you really should.


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