Search This Blog

Sunday, 6 September 2015

On being at loggerheads

These days, we speak of this term in two main ways: either in the expression 'at loggerheads', or in the names of animals such as loggerhead turtles, often referred to in the plural as just 'loggerheads', but in the past, it seems to have been mainly a term of abuse.

In Henry IV, Part 1, Prince Hal is asked where he has been, and he answers "With three or four loggerheads amongst three or fourscore hogsheads." In Love's Labours Lost, Berowne calls Costard "you whoreson loggerhead", while in The Taming of the Shrew, Petruchio calls his servants "you logger-headed and unpolish'd grooms".

Lanius ludovicianus. Wikimedia

Centaurea pullata. Wikimedia
At sea, though, a loggerhead need not necessarily be a blockhead or a dolt. A whaleboat typically had a stout post at the stern, to which a line could be attached, while on land, the loggerhead can also be an American shrike of the genus Lanius, or a plant of the genus Centaurea, but most commonly, it meant somebody of seriously impaired mental agility.

In the case of the loggerhead turtle, the name just indicates that the turtle has a disproportionately large head, and since these animals are not renowned for their fighting skills, it seems unlikely that our modern use 'at loggerheads' came from there. In fact, about the only renown these animals seem to have today is a peaceful one which came to light, shortly after the turtle, Caretta caretta, gained legal standing, along with two other species of turtle.

The three chelonians were named as lead parties, and complained, through their attorneys, about people driving on beaches at night. Perhaps they might have been said to be at loggerheads with the four-wheel drivers, but all was settled amicably in the 11th US Circuit Court of Appeals. A few months later, researchers revealed that the turtles contribute to the maintenance of Florida beaches, because the eggs laid by the turtles leave a valuable supply of nutrients in the sand, and these nutrients support the plants which bind the sand together, maintaining the coastline.

At one time, there was a common English inn sign which read "We three blockheads be", while featuring just two wooden heads. The idea, of course, was to wait for somebody to come along and ask where the third blockhead was, and then tell such questioners that they fitted the role well. That, of course, might lead to feelings of fury and anger, but is that where the expression 'at loggerheads' came from?

It seems not, for there is another type of loggerhead, explained in the OED as an iron instrument with a long handle, and a ball or bulb on the end, which was used for melting pitch, and used as far back as 1687. This is also claimed by people with little experience of warfare at sea under sail to be a device used for pouring hot pitch on the enemy at close quarters.

This might possibly work on a mill-pond, except that part of clearing for action on a wooden sailing ship involved putting out all fires, so the pitch would soon go cold and solid. No, the loggerhead was never used to assail an enemy on another ship.

The long iron handle of the loggerhead allowed it to be placed in a fire or furnace, operated in a safe part of a ship, and the bulb would store enough heat to allow the furnace's heat to pitch in some other part of the ship, without any risk of fire, allowing pitch to be melted onto ropes to preserve them, and timbers to seal them against leaks, and the loggerhead, with a long handle and a knob on the end, was a common item on a ship.

Friction between sailors could often lead to hard feelings, and a loggerhead would make a useful makeshift mace, and it seems likely that it is this meaning, rather than any other, which gives us the term we sometimes use to describe strained personal relations.

No comments:

Post a Comment