I caught my husband in the act of throwing into the organic waste recycling bucket a little pile of newspaper cuttings I had collected. Slightly soiled with the wet from potato peelings, they still told a story about a phrase of our day: get a grip. A piece in the Times by Andrew Billen, on anxiety at the workplace, quoted Rhona (not her real name) saying: ‘I was told to pull myself together. Get a grip.’ Very annoying it must have been. Being told to get a grip implies that one has lost it.
Labour’s ploy, before this latest war, had been to portray David Cameron and the Tories as incompetent. ‘They keep banging on about him needing to “get a grip”’, Quentin Letts noted in the Daily Mail. One of the people banging on was Ben Bradshaw, who, commenting on Downing Street’s briefings about the Duke of York earlier this month, said: ‘The Prime Minister should get a grip.’
In normal usage, the full phrase is to get a grip on oneself or on things. But the psych-ops of political warfare prefer to keep it vague. As Simon Heffer remarked in the Daily Telegraph, ‘Tory MPs are starting to wonder whether Mr Cameron and his circle have the necessary grip.’
Earlier this month, it was the Gove faction that accused the Foreign Secretary of ‘battling to get a grip of Britain’s response’ to the crisis in North Africa, according to the Times. A grip of seems strange, but the Oxford English Dictionary does quote a couple of examples from the 17th and 19th century.
Grip is a fine old English word, occurring in Beowulf, our unread national epic. It means a handful, as of a sheaf of corn during reaping. Getting a grip is different from getting to grips with things. Mr Cameron himself has announced: ‘We simply have to get to grips with the sick-note culture.’ He often uses simply as an intensifier.
Oddly enough, the Prime Minister’s predecessor Gordon Brown was told by his public relations people not to get too much to grips with things, at least not during those televised debates. ‘Remember not to grip the lectern,’ was one memorandum to him. Even so, it was a white-knuckle ride.
This article first appeared in the print edition of The Spectator magazine, dated March 26, 2011