Each week here at the Australian Writers’ Centre, we dissect and discuss, contort and retort, ask and gasp at the English language and all its rules, regulations and ridiculousness. It’s a celebration of language, masquerading as a passive-aggressive whinge about words and weirdness. This week, we have a string theory…
Q: Hi AWC, I was watching the archery at the Olympics yesterday and it got me thinking about “adding another string to your bow”. Why would you need more than one?
A: Ah, okay. You’re talking about the idiom, “to add a string to one’s bow” or similar – meaning to have more options. Curiously, it’s not common at all in the USA but is known throughout the rest of the English-speaking world.
Q: Yep. My friend said that the phrase was probably to do with a violin bow – adding extra strings to produce a better sound.
A: It’s a nice theory, but no, you’re correct with archery. For the record, a quality violin bow is typically made using 150-200 light-coloured hairs from a horse’s tail.
Q: How barbaric!
A: No horses are harmed in the making of them.
Q: How can you be so sure?
A: Um, let’s just say they are obtained when the horse, er, no longer needs them. Like a donor giving organs.
Q: Okay, fair enough. Anyway, let’s get back on track – we’re chasing our tail here.
A: Horse tail…
Q: Yes, very good. So if the phrase IS related to an archer’s bow, why would adding another string be helpful?
A: The key here is to think of the original meaning of the metaphor – it was about having a backup option in case your first thing fails. So, a plan B.
Q: Aha. So, an archer had a backup string in case the first one broke?
A: Exactly. It was the spare tyre of the archery world. The phrase first turned up in English during the mid-1400s and was popular in written works from the late 1500s on. In particular, 19th century authors like Jane Austen used it in this way to refer to having another love interest waiting in the wings – in case their current lover, er…
Q: Got a puncture?
Q: But did archers actually put two strings on their bow at the same time?
A: Well, there are many texts throughout the 1600s that talk specifically of having “two strings to my bow” – implying the presence of two and an ability to switch between the two and fire things off in different directions.
Q: So, not a spare string?
A: Not in that context. It was said to have been used to describe someone unfavourably for always changing his story. But also simply to describe someone with multiple options at the ready. As one 1631 text stated, “he hath many strings to his bow, and many arrows in his quiver”.
Q: An early form of multitasking?
A: Yes – having many strings to your bow could mean being able to do a whole bunch of things, possibly at the same time. Or these days it’s more likely to mean having a different set of skills to draw on.
Q: Does this mean there are actually THREE meanings?
A: Yeah. The first being to have a backup plan to draw on – the spare tyre. The second, actually having two (or more) strings to give you a lot of options to draw on at once.
Q: I’m pretty sure that kind of bow would be outlawed in the Olympics.
A: You’re probably right. And the third meaning is having a variety of different types of string to choose from – akin to having lots of different skills to draw on. Note, to “draw” is to pull on a bow string.
Q: So if you were good at archery, you might decide to add another string to your bow by learning to play the violin?
Q: That reminds me of my Uncle Karsten who used to practise the violin in his apartment building. But the neighbours complained and he was sent to jail.
A: Jail?? For simply playing at home? Surely not! What was the charge?
Q: Domestic violins.
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