Words, phrases and sayings developed around these field sports and entered the English language for a long time to come. Indians in positions of authority also followed suit and actively took up all the field sports and whatever else went along with it. Some here had the chance to experience the tail end of this unique phenomenon which dominated the lives of the social and economic elite of the pre-independence Indian sub-continent. The larger than life stories which circulated around various field sports find eager audience in Indian society even today.
First published on 19th August 2019 in Rashtradoot - http://epaper.rashtradoot.com/c/42667388
Run with hares, hunt with hounds (Of Idioms, Phrases and the field sports)
– by Ajay Singha Raconteur Indica
There are some phrases and idioms which you use your whole life without realising that their meaning has little to do with the words you utter. Some of these owe their origin to the field sports as was practised in Great Britain and English speaking colonies in the preceding centuries. My parents who were both well educated, often used examples and instances from various field sports to explain the story behind these oft used expressions in English.
As a child I accompanied the elders to various picnics and outdoor parties where some amounts of angling and small game shooting was also indulged. These phrases and terms were therefore iterated in my memory from personal observation.
Later in life when I used these phrases and expressions, I was appalled at the high level of ignorance and disregard about the origin and reference for these hallowed terms. Of late, teachers and writers have started ascribing new, politically correct and somewhat obscure meanings so as not to offend the sensibilities of others. With due respect, I explain the origin, meaning and references for some of the commonly used phrases in the English language.
“A bird in hand is better than two in the bush”: When out shooting small game in the field one might come across a situation when a single game bird gave a clear chance to be shot and bagged. At that very moment several other birds were seen running and hiding in a cluster of bushes. This posed a dilemma: Should one go after the larger number of birds hidden in the bushes, with a hope of perhaps shooting two or three or should one fire at the one presenting an obvious target. Thus the above phrase was coined.
“Bagged”: When announcing the result of a shooting excursion, it was mentioned that X number of game birds were bagged and had been successfully “retrieved” to be included at the end of the day in “the final bag”. “Retrievers” were specially trained dogs of high breeding, used mainly for carefully picking up birds that were shot. The golden brown and black Labrador retrievers continue this ingrained behaviour with Frisbees and balls even today. The term “bagged” was also used subsequently in big game shooting to describe “bagging a deer” or “bagging a tiger”. Today it is used to indicate if a contract or export order has been successfully won.
“Sitting ducks”: On rare occasions when a bird was “winged” and not completely dead, etiquette permitted taking a shot at a sitting bird in order to “finish it”. Thereafter this term came into vogue. On some occasions youngsters, who were just learning the art of shooting flying ducks were allowed to take a first shot on a “Sitter” or more specifically “Sitting ducks”. This unsportsmanlike shot was frowned upon by the older generations of shooters. The term meanwhile has no negativity associated and obviously refers to easy situations where the opposing side does not have much of a chance to get away or pose any challenge.
“Killing two birds with one stone”: Sometime while shooting sand grouse or teals a flock of birds would fly past and two birds might be successfully shot with just one shot fired, which led to the above term. Stones were used in sling shots to bag game birds in the “off season” by poachers. Though the term has unsavoury origins, it was nevertheless adopted for common use.
“Mixed bag”: In the shooting season more than one species of small game may be present in the field. So after dropping a flying partridge, a wild hare may be subsequently bagged. This may have been followed by a quail, a grouse or a duck in the same shoot. At the end of the day the shooter would find several different species in his bag. This gave rise to the term “Mixed bag” as none of the above are generally cooked together as they have different types of meat and require different methods of preparation.
“Pot Luck”: The term is presently used to denote a mixed response or a mixed result to a given endeavour. If all the different game species would be cooked together it would be called a “Mixed Pot” and when the guests serve themselves they would partake in a “Pot Luck” as one dish would have different types of meat and only luck would determine what finally landed on your plate. These terms are presently used in a generic manner or when food is prepared by several people individually in their homes and shared amongst a larger group of participants. People can never imagine the true origin of these terms and offer all sorts of silly explanations to elaborate on the subject.
“Give it a good lead”: When shooting driven pheasant or fast flying ducks the shooter had to shoot several feet ahead of the bird on its’ flight path. This was necessary to ensure that the shot charge from the gun met the bird for a mid air collision and ensured the latter’s availability for the dining table. The above term owes its origin to this phenomenon. It is intermittently used to convey maintaining a respectable distance or a gap when leading an initiative or a project.
“A Wild Goose chase”: Wild goose shooting was a somewhat complicated task and needed considerable planning and strategy in order to secure a good bag. Without this preparation the shooter may have wasted a full day and not managed to get within shooting distance of a goose. Hence an unplanned and unorganized approach may lead the person on a task where nothing is achieved and the person would return “Empty handed.”
“Hunt where the ducks are”: As the phrase suggests, one should only hunt in a lake or a place where ducks are likely to be present and not go around aimlessly in the countryside. This signifies focussed activity for marketing and sales in the present context.
“Call it a day”: Shooting of all game was done by natural light and at the last light the senior shooter announced “let us call it a day” after which shotguns were returned to their gun cases. This term is presently used to bring a day’s business to a close. The day may not be over but the critical business at hand is put to rest.
“Long shot”: When stalking deer, especially in the northern hill States or down in South India, one had to walk across rough terrain and usually the deer presented itself as a target across a valley. Sometimes the distance could be as much as five hundred yards. So when the shooter took this rather “Long shot” with a rifle (not shotgun) he had limited chances of hitting the target as the law of gravity would pull down the single bullet travelling such a long distance.
The shooter was therefore required to “adjust his sights” in order to be accurate. To account for the rifle bullet’s parabolic trajectory the shooter was further advised to “set his sights high” or just “aim higher” to ensure that the bullet went on the “planned trajectory”.
“Give it his best shot”: After sustained crawling through bush and mud the shooter took careful aim in order to “give it his best shot” knowing well that if he “missed the shot”, the deer all around for miles would vanish. In case the shooter got the deer, it was “right on target” or “bulls eye”. Paper targets are used to practice rifle shooting and at the centre of the circle there is a black circle, which looks like a bull’s eye. So a perfect shot is reflected as scoring a bullseye.
“Missed by a hairs breadth”: If the hunter missed the shot and the deer leapt away unhurt, he would recount to fellow shooters later that he missed it narrowly or “by a hairs breadth”. If the bullet missed the deer by a big margin, then fellow shooters would comment that the shot was “wide off the mark.” Sometimes the deer vanishes before one could get “a shot at it” in which case one would have to “lower one’s sights” as there is nothing left to aim at.
“A shot in the dark”: On rare occasions a shooter may have a vague idea of the deer’s position if it had been seen going behind a bush. This prompted him to take “a shot in the dark” without really seeing the target. This term is now commonly used to denote taking an action or a prompt decision without confirming the entire circumstances and full facts of the case.
“Fair game”: All these phrases and terms which emanate from rifle shooting are used extensively in teaching and practising business management, especially in USA. Game shooting all over the world is strongly regulated by dates, seasons, time and species. In big game shooting the male of the species is always considered “fair game” but only during “open season”. Very often the females are spared so that the cycle of procreation is not disturbed. These terms are also used in business management and especially where hostile and predatory activity takes place.
“Run with the hare and hunt with the hounds”: Dogs or hounds were an integral part of field sports and used often to get small game out of their resting habitat into open country so that a flying or running target may be presented. In such a situation one could support either the Hare or the Hound and hence the term meaning trying to support both sides of an ongoing argument or dispute is not possible. Sometimes two hares ran in different directions confusing the hounds and dividing the combined efforts of the hunter and the hounds. The term “chasing two hares” reflected this dilemma.
“Hold Your horses”: Hounds are used extensively in fox hunting, which is an exclusive British sport practised mainly in the English country side but intermittently in the hills around Delhi at the end of the 19th century. In fox hunting, even though the fox had been sighted, the chase would not begin till the master of the hunt gave a signal to sounded the bugles. The above phrase reflected the referred situation. The huntsmen were ordered to “unleash the hounds” and ensure that they were “on the scent” of the fox. The term “hounded” emerged as the hounds kept on the scent for a long time and kept chasing the fox continually. The term now suggests sustained and aggressive follow up in marketing and also to urge someone continuously.
“Red Herring”: This idiom is not restricted to fox hunting but all field sports where dogs are used to track the quarry. Sometimes the hounds got confused and went around in circles as they were perhaps mischievously misled by “red herring”. The herring is a type of strong-smelling fish and the smell is sufficient to distract the dogs from their path. When out hunting, if the dog smells a herring it will be distracted by the strong smell and discontinue going in the direction of the quarry. The term is commonly used to refer to a piece of information that draws attention away from the real facts of a situation.
“Call off the dogs”: If the hunt with dogs was not successful at some point the dogs had to be ordered to stop searching for the quarry. This led to the above term which is often used in police and crime related parlance when chasing a criminal must be discontinued. Sometimes the dog was absolutely off mood or a bit unwell and would not move towards finding the quarry. This led to the term “this dog won’t hunt” to signify that any efforts to make a person work would be futile and it would be best to leave him alone.
“Fox guarding the hen house”: Fox hunting was ostensibly to keep the population of foxes in check as they posed a threat to poultry and livestock in the English country side. If a fox was around the place where the poultry was stocked it was expected to attack and kill the birds. A person with vested interests cannot be expected to guard an asset and this term is often used to describe such a situation.
The above are some of the phrases and sayings which reflect happenings from a bygone era. These field sports were vastly different and must be clearly distinguished from similar type of activities for a sustenance such as poaching or trapping. Later in the century, political and economic upheavals shifted the centre stage from Great Britain to the US. The emerging social egalitarianism impacted the field sports as well. It continued as a range of activities enjoyed outdoors by gentlemen who earlier governed and subsequently controlled the capital across continents.
Intertwined with related hobbies, field sports dominated the lives of the world’s social elite for nearly two centuries. The use use of these terms and phrases continued unabated though of late it is showing signs of disuse and redundancy. Field sports and use of these phrases are both on a downward swing and, alas, on an irreversible path towards oblivion.