Jeremy Butterfield Editorial

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On the spur of the moment. Or in the spur of the moment? An idiom in motion?

Lesedauer: 6 m

I don’t usually do things on the spur of the moment.

Do you?

Life’s generally too complicated and busy to allow for spontaneity. Things have to be planned. (If you go by Myers-Briggs], I’m a tight-arsed ‘J’, not a go-with-the-flow ‘P’. Though some might say I’m half-arsed…)

But, even less do I do them in the spur of the moment.

But, here’s the thing: writing this blog was an almost ‘spur-of-the-moment’ decision. I was only prompted to write it last night, Friday, and here I am writing it on a Saturday (and forward-posting it for a Tuesday). Why I’m writing it at all will soon become clear.

In?!?! the spur of the moment

The idiom is engraved on my brain since who knows when as ‘on the spur of the moment’. So you could have knocked me down with a feather (1853) when an amiable and puppishly enthusiastic BBC music presenter came out with ‘in the spur of the moment’ in a Proms interview. Shurely shome mishtake, I thought.

Well, yes and no. ‘Yes’, because it is not the canonical, dictionary-guaranteed preposition, and prepositions in idioms tend to be ‘set in stone’ at any given point in time. But ‘no’, because it is not a one-off or a tlip of the songue.

For example, if you google “in the spur of the moment” with quotation marks, you get ‘about 20,400’ results.

Among them you discover that there is a 2000 jazz album called ‘In the Spur of the Moment,’ which suggests that that form of the phrase was already well established by the millennium.

You will also find a discussion on the useful WordReference Forums going back to 2005; in discussing a different phrase, several posters take ‘in the spur of the moment’ for granted, while another says he uses ‘at’ ‘…but I don’t think it really matters. In, at, on, the meaning is there with all of them’.

(Clearly a Myers-Briggs ‘P’. One wonders if he is similarly cavalier about spelling.)

In contrast, googling “on the spur of the moment” retrieves about 1,210,000 hits.

If you look at iWEB, the carefully structured 14-billion-word BYU corpus, you find 228 for ‘in the spur of the moment’ but 1662 for ‘on the spur of the moment’, an 88/12 per cent split. The NOW corpus (6 billion words from news sites) shows 122 ‘in’ from all round the anglosphere, and 826 for ‘on’, a spookily similar 87/13 per cent split.

Why the change?

This is purely guesswork. First, at least for me, the metaphor is not entirely dead. Therefore, ‘on’ makes sense, given that in the background there is a physical spur involved, which something can be on, but not in. However, I (possibly rashly) presume for many in the ‘in’ crowd the metaphor is dead and buried. Certainly, for those online who ask what it means, it must be long under ground.

And if the metaphor is dead, then analogy plays its part, the analogy I am thinking of being ‘in the heat of the moment’.

In other words, you get a blidiom (blend idiom) of on the spur of/in the heat of + the moment.

This is then perhaps reinforced by the highly frequent use of ‘in’ in other time-related phrases, e.g. in the nick of time; in five minutes/an hour/a day, etc.; in the morning/afternoon, etc.; in 1885; in the twentieth etc. century; in recent days/weeks/years; in the last/next few days.

I won’t go on; you get the picture.

If my hunch is correct, the frequency of ‘in’ overrides any parallelism with phrases such as ‘on impulse’, ‘on a whim’, in which ‘on’ is used to mean something like, as the OED puts it, ‘Indicating the basis or reason of an action, opinion, etc.; having as a motive’.

What strikes me as unusual is the prepositional shift in an idiom. However, if historical ‘all on a sudden’ can become ‘all of a sudden’, why shouldn’t ‘on the spur…’ become ‘in the spur…’?

For the moment, though, the editors I’ve asked would definitely change ‘in’ to ‘on’.

What follows delves into the history of the phrase, courtesy of the OED.

On the spur of the moment
What does it mean?

As Cobuild neatly defines it, ‘if you do something on the spur of the moment, you do it suddenly, without planning it beforehand’.

That gets the two elements of suddenness and absence of planning.

The example is They admitted they had taken a vehicle on the spur of the moment.

Which sounds about right for the mindset of joyriders.

Why ‘spur’ of the moment’?

These days I suspect lots of people ‘out there’ (note to self: a blog about ‘out there’ is overdue) don’t know what a spur is. (I’m sure you’re not one of them, gentle reader.) Or if they do, they think it’s something to do with football, Spurs being the nickname of the English football team Tottenham Hotspur.

For the enlightenment of such, a spur is:

A device for pricking the side of a horse in order to urge it forward, consisting of a small spike or spiked wheel attached to the rider’s heel.

Self-evidently, such a barbaric piece of equipment has no place in our enlightened age, but, in days of old, when knights were bold… (complete ad libitum), great store was set on having rather spectacular ones. And even later, for example, Argentine gauchos wore them.

Here’s a rather fancy set of gaucho spurs.

And further down, there’s a picture showing a rather foppish St George sporting a spectacular pair… of spurs, that is.

The word spur goes back to Old English: the OED’s ‘origin’ rubric describes it as ‘a word inherited from Germanic’, which almost makes it sound as if we should somehow treasure it, like great-grandmama’s locket.

From medieval times it seemed ripe for metaphorical use. First, as the OED puts it, ‘In various prepositional or elliptical phrases denoting speed, haste, eagerness, etc.’

Chaucer used it thus in c1374:

Tristith wele that I Wole be her champioun with spore and yerd.

(Trust well, I will be to her champion with whip and with spur)
Troilus & Criseyde ii. 1427

And the Bard also:   You haue made shift to run into’t, bootes and spurres and all.
a1616, All’s Well that ends Well (1623) ii. v. 36

On the spur

The next development was, as defined by the OED, into a semi-fixed phrase:

on (also upon) the (†spurs or) spur (also †upon spur), at full speed, in or with the utmost haste, in literal or figurative use.’

First recorded in Berners/Froissart:
Whan we be in the feldes, lette vs ryde on the spurres to Gaunte.
1525, Cronycles II. viii. 18

But used as late as Tennyson:

And there, All wild to found an University For maidens, on the spur she fled.
1847, Princess i. 19

This use is not marked with the funereal obelus (†) to show that it is obsolete, but surely it is (the OED entry dates to 1915).

In addition, spur on its own came to be used from the sixteenth century onwards to mean ‘incentive, stimulus, incitement’:

I professe to be but..a spurre or a whet stone, to sharpe the pennes of some other.
1551, T. Wilson Rule of Reason sig. Aiiijv

Praise and honour are spurres to virtue.
a1593, H. Smith Serm. (1637) 585

Pisanello, Apparition of the Virgin to Sts Antony and George, 1445, National Gallery, London. Detail.

On the spur of the moment

It was not until the nineteenth century that on the spur of the moment arose:

Volunteers, with a party of the Surrey cavalry, attended and prevented the populace in general from taking that step, which, perhaps, the best feelings of human nature had, upon the spur of the moment dictated.

1801   Ann. Reg. 1799 (Otridge ed.) ii. Chron. 27/1

But even then it was not ‘set in stone.’ The preposition could be upon (ok, it’s ‘the same as’ on, only more formal), and the second noun could be occasion:

He carried me home on the spur of the occasion.

1809, B. H. Malkin tr. A. R. Le Sage Adventures Gil Blas I. ii. iii. 194

And Carlyle took it even further:

The Church..has been consecrated, by supreme decree, on the spur of this time, into a Pantheon.

1837   T. Carlyle French Revol. II. iii. vii. 199

The first attributive use of the phrase came in the mid-twentieth century:

Toppy is tops at spur-of-the-moment tactics.

1948, C. Day Lewis Otterbury Incident viii. 94

Google Ngrams suggests how the form with occasion has fallen out of fashion; the batch of citations seemingly dated 1883-2000 are from antique works, e.g. Jeremy Bentham.

In all of them, however, the preposition is ‘on’. The Hansard Corpus and the Corpus of Historical American English show the same.



Et lux perpetua luceat eis. Heu, heu mi frater!


Two young boys look ingenuously at the camera. It looks like the 1950s.  Perhaps 1955 or 1956?

Look closely.

They are wearing ties. Ties–and jeans, which must have been very new in Britain then. Jeans that they could grow into, as the rolled-up hems suggest.

It must have been a special occasion; otherwise, the ties are inexplicable.

In fact, in those innocent days, having your photo taken was a special occasion. Having access to a camera was reason enough. Perhaps the photographer was an adoring mother or father. Perhaps it was a neighbour.

The boy on the right is the older of the two. Look at his right arm. It is bandaged. That was—presumably—because of his accident falling through the rusted roof of the old air-raid shelters behind where he lived.

The accident reported in the local papers that had his mother frantic with worry. But it could have been much worse: he had a sprained wrist, but no broken bones.

He looks childishly, abashedly smug at his exploit. He was always adventurous and disobedient. And he had his father’s mischievous sense of humour.

He would kick a football around with the other local kids. Go on to do Outward Bound, be an all-round athlete at school, a lightning-fast wing in rugby, and the All England Schools’ Champion in the 880 yards (aka, 800 metres).

His wee brother was happier playing on his own, weaving stories to himself with his toy knights and his toy soldiers. A simple extrovert/introvert contrast.

Slow forward sixty years. The roles are reversed. Younger brother is taller; older brother is slighter. But stature doesn’t matter.


What matters, Rupe, is feeling. Those other pictures I have from our childhood show you holding my hand, looking after me, your daffy younger brother. You were always, and always will be, my big brother.

“You disappeared in the dead of winter.” Pace Auden, the brooks were not frozen. The airports were far from deserted (it being Christmastime, and, despite the devaluation of sterling, those who could afford it were off to their accustomed skiing or sunshine holidays). Therefore, snow did not disfigure the public statues (which, in any case, had mostly been stolen to be melted down for scrap). The mercury probably did not sink in the mouth of the dying day.

But, it was, indeed, your last afternoon as yourself. “An afternoon of nurses and rumours.”

Your wife and children, happily/sadly, were there to ease your passage into eternity.

Et posuit cadaver ejus in sepulchro suo, et planxerunt eum: Heu, heu mi frater!

And he laid his carcase in his own grave; and they mourned over him, saying, Alas, my brother!

(1 Kings, 13:30)

Rupert William Spencer Butterfield: 1 May, 1947—20 December, 2016.

Et lux perpetua luceat eis.



Putting The Kibosh On Cassidy

An interesting investigation into an idiom that has been claimed to be Irish. The OED (1901) notes ‘origin obscure: It has been stated to be Yiddish or Anglo-Hebraic’.


In Daniel Cassidy’s worthless book of fake etymology, he claimed that the word kibosh or kybosh is of Irish origin. Cassidy was certainly not the first to claim this and his sole authority for saying it was a website called Cork Slang Online. The usual claim in relation to its supposed Irish origin is that it comes from caidhp bháis or caidhp an bháis or caip bháis, meaning a cap or cape of death. Some sources also mention cie báis, but cie is not a possible word in Irish orthography.

While caidhp bháis is given as the name of a fungus in Irish dictionaries (the death cap), there is no evidence that this is an ancient expression and it may have been composed on the pattern of the English phrase death cap in the 20th century.

There are various explanations for the meaning of caidhp bháis as…

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Damp Squid

I’m relieved to know I’m not a “racist OED lapdog.” A splendid review of my little “Damp Squid.”


Daniel Cassidy did no original research at all. His idea of research was to abstract information from dictionaries, then sneer at the people who had done the work for him. His main targets were the Oxford English Dictionary and Merriam-Webster, who he misrepresented as a clique of WASP bigots. Cassidy called these bastions of the linguistic establishment ‘the dictionary dudes’. In reality, of course, there is more of an implied criticism of the main dictionary-makers in the Irish language in Cassidy’s work, as none of Cassidy’s insane phrases like pá lae sámh and béal ónna are mentioned in any of the Irish dictionaries. It is also interesting that when Cassidy was confronted with a real Irish person who knew some Irish and could clearly see that Cassidy knew nothing about the subject, Cassidy was quite happy to hide behind the authority of the OED. This happened in an RTÉ radio…

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Achingly astute: my latest linguistic hero

Praise from an unexpected quarter. Thanks, Kamahl.

In Praise of the Written Word

First, I must tip my hat to my Al Jazeera Engish colleague Bernard Smith for emailing this link out to our whole newsroom.  I hope everyone reads it.

Until today I’d never heard of Jeremy Butterfield.  He is (seeing as you asked) the editor of Fowler’s Dictionary of Modern English Usage, and has written a brilliant Comment is Free article in today’s Guardian newspaper:

Jeremy is, I believe, a little bit like me.  Slightly pedantic, occasionally furious, but always passionate about defending the English language.  The examples he gives in his article are things I see creeping into journalism all the time – even TV journalism, which is supposed to be all about simplicity and speaking normally.

Jeremy – whether it’s the linguist’s hat or tinfoil hat you occasionally forget to don*, I’m glad you do.  English will of course evolve, as it must.  But isn’t it equally, if not more important…

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W.H. Auden: Happy (108th) Birthday!

As the great man was born on this day, 108 years ago, I couldn’t resist posting one of my favourite poems from his work.

I still remember how startled I was all those years ago – the early 1970s – when I turned a corner in Oxford and almost bumped into the owner of that famously lined reptilian face (“like a wedding cake left out in the rain”). He was going from the High Street into Radcliffe Square behind the University Church, shuffling along in his carpet slippers, his skin a spectral shade of grey. It must have been when Christ Church were putting him up, and therefore not that long before his death.


Musée des Beaux Arts

About suffering they were never wrong,
The old Masters: how well they understood
Its human position: how it takes place
While someone else is eating or opening a window or just walking dully along;
How, when the aged are reverently, passionately waiting
For the miraculous birth, there always must be
Children who did not specially want it to happen, skating
On a pond at the edge of the wood:
They never forgot
That even the dreadful martyrdom must run its course024
Anyhow in a corner, some untidy spot
Where the dogs go on with their doggy life and the torturer’s horse
Scratches its innocent behind on a tree.
In Breughel’s Icarus, for instance: how everything turns away
Quite leisurely from the disaster; the ploughman may
Have heard the splash, the forsaken cry,
But for him it was not an important failure; the sun shone
As it had to on the white legs disappearing into the green
Water, and the expensive delicate ship that must have seen
Something amazing, a boy falling out of the sky,
Had somewhere to get to and sailed calmly on.

In a rather nice touch, York City Council commissioned a spiral pavement outside their headquarters in the converted old railway station, with the opening words of “As I walked out one evening…” on it.


The only image I can find online is this one, of its being built, and it doesn’t really do it justice. You look down on it from the pavement from where this photo must have been taken, and the words are easily legible. When I briefly stayed in York I used to walk past it practically every day, and it never failed to delight me.

And for a slightly chilling, unsettling experience, here is a recording of him reading and an animation of his face.

If you enjoy this blog, and find it useful, there’s an easy way for you to find out when I blog again. Just sign up (in the right-hand column, above the Twitter feed) and you’ll receive an email to tell you. “Simples!”, as the meerkats say. I shall be blogging regularly about issues of English usage, word histories, and writing tips. Enjoy!


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Charlotte Bronte’s last love letter

Fascinating piece of literary detection.

Rereading Jane Eyre

‘To forbid me to write to you, to refuse to answer me, would be to tear from me from my only joy on earth, to deprive me of my last privilege _ a privilege I shall never consent willingly to surrender. Believe me, my master, in writing to me it is a good deed that you will do. So long as I believe you are pleased with me, so long as I have hope of receiving news from you, I can be at rest and not too sad.’

The last known love letter Charlotte Bronte wrote to her ‘master’, the man she fell madly in love with in her early twenties, her Belgian professor, Constantin Héger, was written on 18th November 1845,exactly 169 years ago, tomorrow.

M Héger M Héger

What do we know of the love life of the woman who penned one of the greatest love stories ever written?…

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