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Mind your language

Lurch

9 March 2013

9:00 AM

9 March 2013

9:00 AM

My husband made a little joke. ‘There’s no such thing as a free lurch,’ he said, looking up from his Sunday Telegraph. In it, David Cameron had declared: ‘The battle for Britain’s future will not be won in lurching to the right.’

Lurching is a nicely pejorative word. A lurch could only be welcome accidentally. The word suddenly popped up in the 19th century. No one is known to have used it earlier than Byron in 1819, in Don Juan, where he contrives a Byronic rhyme: ‘A mind diseased no remedy can physic/ (Here the ship gave a lurch, and he grew sea-sick).’


Its origins are mysterious but nautical. A clue may be found in the works of William Falconer, who is more or less a one-book man. The one book was the long poem The Shipwreck (which Byron admired), the success of which in 1762 secured him an appointment in the Royal Navy. Later editions of The Shipwreck were amplified with explanatory notes and a fold-out print of a ship with its parts named. From this didactic tendency grew Falconer’s Universal Dictionary of the Marine, published in 1769. In it, Falconer defines Lee-larches as ‘the sudden and violent rolls which a ship often takes to leeward in a high sea’. Some people have said that larches is just a misprint for lurches. That sounds like wishful thinking, for there are earlier examples of a similar word, latch, in a nautical sense. These are choppy waters.

So, do lurchers lurch? The dog does not stagger or heel over as it pursues rabbits. It was called a lurcher because it grabs or outstrips its prey. That sense comes from a verb to lurch meaning ‘to get the start of someone so as to prevent him from obtaining a fair share of food’. To add to the confusion, lurcher was often erroneously derived from the Latin lurco, meaning ‘glutton’, with which it is unconnected.

And what about being left in the lurch? That comes from an Elizabethan game said to resemble backgammon, called lourche in French. It later came to be used in whist, where it was good to save the lurch, bad to be left in it. I’m not sure which Mr Cameron has done.


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