Simanaitis Says

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RECENT BROUHAHAS of executive orders bring to mind the terms “slapdash,” “going off half-cocked” and their cousins “haphazard” and “slipshod. In the interest of keeping myself etymologically hep, I arranged appointments with my professionals on such matters, Messrs. Merriam, Webster and Oxford.

Slapdash. Merriam-Webster must have had this SimanaitisSays item in mind: It defines “slapdash” as “haphazard, slipshod.” I confess this sounds a bit circular to me.

Fortunately, though, M & W expands as well: “The first known use of “slapdash” in English came in 1679 from the British poet and dramatist John Dryden, who used it as an adverb in his play The kind keeper; or Mr. Limberham: “Down I put the notes slapdash.”


John Dryden, 1631–1700, English poet, literary critic, playwright. England’s first Poet Laureate, 1688. Portrait by Sir Godfrey Kneller.

The Compact Edition of the Oxford English Dictionary says, “with, or as with, a slap and a dash; in a hasty, sudden, precipitate manner; esp. without much consideration, thought, ceremony or care; hurriedly or carelessly.”’

I get it. As in “The executive order of the immigration travel ban was carried out in a slapdash fashion.”

Haphazard. Merriam-Webster says “haphazard” means “marked by lack of plan, order, or direction.” Its first known use predates Dryden by more than a century, 1569.

The “hap” part shares parentage with “happening,” from the Old Norse happ, meaning “chance.” Hazard used to be a dice game similar to craps. It gets its name from the Arabic word al-zahr, meaning “the die.” Merriam-Webster notes that haphazard originally meant “chance,” though it soon was describing “things with no apparent logic or order.”

Slipshod. I expected “slipshod” to have an origin in horse-shoeing, but I was wrong. M & W defines it as “a: wearing loose shoes or slippers, b: down at the heel, shabby.”

The OED concurs: “wearing slippers or loose shoes, in later use esp. such as are down at the heel.” The word dates from the late 1500s, when soon it imparted the sense of shabbiness.


King Lear’s Fool. Engraving from a medieval manuscript.

Shakespeare has Lear’s Fool say to the monarch: “Then I pray thee, be merry; thy wit shall ne’er go slip-shod.” Lear responds: “Ha, ha, ha!”

Would that today’s problems could be laughed away.

Going off half-cocked. I imagined this term had NRA overtones. And, sure enough, “half-cock” has to do with operating a firearm, but only in its second meaning.


A Colt Single Action Army pistol at half cock. Image by Mike Cumpston.

According to the OED, its first meaning is “part of a watch.” Its second, relating to a firearm: “The position of the cock or hammer when raised only halfway and held by the catch or half-bent… Hence, To go off (at) half-cock is to go off prematurely; to speak or act without due forethought or preparation, and consequently to fail in attaining one’s object.”

The OED cites its first reference back to 1745. It cites another in the Westminster Gazette, January 6, 1896: “What disasters he brought on his country and his company by going off half-cocked.”


The Baroque Cycle author Neil Stephenson is accompanied by, clockwise from top left, Sir Isaac Newton, Gottfried Wilhelm Leibnitz, George Frideric Handel and Jack Sparrow, this last one because of his kinship with Jack Shaftoe.

As a more recent citation, I call your attention to Jack Shaftoe, aka Half-Cocked Jack, a charismatic hero, sort of a Johnny Depp pirate type, in Neil Stephenson’s wonderful trilogy, The Baroque Cycle. By the way, Shaftoe gets his nickname for a reason other than firearm-related.

I believe even more recent examples of “half-cocked” are multitudinous. ds

© Dennis Simanaitis,, 2017

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This entry was posted on February 3, 2017 by in I Usta be an Editor Y'Know and tagged .
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