Wednesday, 27 February 2013


Have you ever noticed that some people speak in code?  And, others speak in riddles?  I'm not talking about what I call 'in-speak', language used within industry such as a salesman calling a sold car a 'spot'.  Some people are just difficult to understand because of vague references or confused meanings. 

It could be geographical, even within Australia.  I know one family from Victoria who use 'sayings' so strange to me that I was surprised to find that they were really old sayings with meanings - though maybe the meaning applied today doesn't have much to do with the original.

The one that really bothered me was - playing ducks and drakes.  The meaning I get from the way I've heard it used seems to be - to play games and make a mess of things.  So ... to the search engine.

The first known reference in print to playing duck and drakes was in 1585 when it was described as; "A kind of sport or play with an oister shell or stone throwne into the water, and making circles yer it sinke, etc.  It is called a ducke and a drake, and a halfe-penie cake."

Ducks and drakes was the name given to the game of tossing flat, smooth stones across the surface of water  so they skip - commonly called stone skipping or stone skimming today.  To play ducks and drakes with your money is to throw it away, just as if you used coins instead of stones to play the game.

There are references to 'make ducks and drakes' rather than 'play ducks and drakes', which could mean the ripples on the water made by waterfowl.   An example from a play in 1626;   "The poorest ship-boy Might on the Thames make duckes and drakes with pieces Of eight fetchd out of Spayne."

So, to spend one’s time playing ducks and drakes is to waste one’s money and time in idle pleasure; to spend foolishly or recklessly; to throw one's money away  or, to make ducks and drakes of your time or money.  And over years the meaning changed to unreliable and reckless or 'to play fast and loose' which itself means inconstant and unreliable. 

Way back in the 14th century 'Fast-and-loose' was a cheating game played with a stick and a leather strap.  The game was set up in the market place. The strap is folded in half and wound into a coil to form what looks like two identical loops in the centre.   Players are challenged to put the stick into the true centre loop so that when the ends are pulled the stick is held fast by the strap. Bets are laid and the strap pulled. As the operator can change how the ends are pulled the strap falls away loose and the player never wins.  So I suppose that means you'll never win playing fast and loose.

Later on the game was played with a loop or string.  It had a variety of names including; 'Pricking the Garter', 'The Strap' and 'The Australian Belt'. You can see a modern version, played with a looped chain, here -

The other saying this family used a lot had to do with pushing a rope across the stage but the meaning to that is very vague except that it originally had to do with ropes and rigging on a ship. When theatres deveoped to include scenery and raised curtains the old ship riggers were employed to rig and operate the curtains etc and so their seafaring language transferred to land.  I suppose pushing a rope across a stage is not an easy thing to do.

But right now I'm thinking of the cat's cradle we played with wool.........

We never really grow up, we only learn how to act in public.

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