Triangle Grammar Guide

Longtime N&O journalist Pam Nelson writes about language use and misuse and answers questions about grammar and style. Readers can weigh in on what annoys them, too. Think of this as your online grammar class. Send e-mail to Pam at pam.nelson@newsobserver.com.

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Arguing with idioms: Batten down the hatches

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A quote in a New York Times story that The N&O used in print inspired my latest idiom research. Here is how the quote appeared early in the editing at The N&O:

"It's a corporate problem," said Rep. Bart Stupak, D-Mich., who has been particularly critical of BP's operations in Alaska and will lead the House committee hearing. "Their mentality is to get in the foxhole and button down the hatch. It just seems there is this pattern."

Leaving aside Stupak's mixing of metaphors (foxholes on battlefields, hatches on ships), the quote confuses button and batten. This could have been a misquote or a typo in the rendering of the congressman's quote or a slip of the tongue on the congressman's part. It is batten in most versions the story on the Web, giving Stupak the benefit of the doubt (and the reader the benefit of editing). 

It turns out that "button down the hatch[es]" is a possible eggcorn, a term coined by Geoffrey Pullum on Language Log. An eggcorn replaces a familiar word for an obscure or misheard one in a common phrase. One of my favorites is "for all intensive purposes" for "for all intents and purposes." I always said and wrote "stumped my toe" for "stubbed my toe" until a colleague corrected me many years ago. Here is an Eggcorn Database.

What does "batten down the hatch[es]" mean? Random House Webster's College Dictionary defines the idiom as "to prepare to meet an emergency." The literal meaning is "to cover a ship's hatches with tarpaulins held in place by battens." A batten is a piece of wood or metal used on a ship to hold a sail or to hold a tarp in place over a hatch.

Related to that, a batten can also be a piece of wood used in building to reinforce a joint, especially in a floor. That use of batten appears to come from Middle English for a finished board. A batten in the theater is a bar or a metal pipe from which lights, backdrops or curtains are hung. 

Batten can also be also a verb meaning "to grow fat" or "to thrive and prosper." The dicitionaries trace that word to Old Norse batna meaning "to improve." The verb can be transitive, too, so a cattle rancher could batten the cows in a feedlot, although I don't know how often that term is used.

 

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What a cool (and fun) post!

What a cool (and fun) post! I'm definitely bookmarking the Eggcorn Database link - thanks for sharing!

Re: Cool post

Thank you. Eggcorns are fun.

Pam Nelson

Triangle Grammar Guide 

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About the blogger

Pam Nelson began her career as a writer in 1976 and has worked in various editing jobs at The News & Observer since 1987. She has won awards for her headline writing and has taught college classes in copy editing and seminars in grammar and usage.
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