Left in the lurch
This is not a happy situation to be in because it means that you have been sorely let down by someone who has Left you with a difficult situation to deal with. In modern-day idiomatic usage it often describes a situation in the workplace where someone has resigned and left their boss to pick up the pieces.
From an etymological perspective, the interesting word in the phrase is lurch. We are familiar with it as a verb, used to describe a violent and sudden movement, either forwards, backwards or sideways. Ships buffeted by the waves are prone to lurching, I find. In it modern form lurch as a noun describes that rather alarming motion but it is not that sense which is used in our idiom. Rather it relates to a game popular in the 16th century in France called lourche or possibly l’ourche. Although the rules are now lost it was thought to have been a dice game, possibly similar to backgammon.
The Oxford English Dictionary posits that the game’s name was German in origin and offers as possible roots lorstch, lurtsch, lorz and lurz. More germane to our enquiries is the Teutonic expression lurz warden which means failing to achieve some objective in a game. There is a similar expression in French, demeurer lourche, which describes a situation where one loses disastrously. In cribbage circles, or perhaps that should be oblongs, a lurch occurs where the winner has pegged out before their opponent has even got halfway round the peg board. A comprehensive defeat for the loser in anybody’s language.
The expression seems to have hopped over la manche by the end of the 16th century. Thomas Nashe was a disputatious fellow and had a running battle with Dr Gabriel Harvey. His pamphlet, Have with you to Saffron-Walden, published in 1596 was his final shot in what had been a four-year literary dispute. In it is to be found this passage, “whom he also procured to be equally bound with him for his new cousens apparence to the law, which he neuer did, but left both of them in the lurtch for him”. Clearly, the idiom has its current meaning, the two cousins being discomfited by the actions of the bounder.
Another invidious position to be left in is holding the baby. There are other variants such as holding the bag or holding the can. In each of these circumstances the person left holding the object is the only one remaining to face the music. Bag seems to have been the earlier variant, emerging during the 18th century and was originally to give somebody the bag to hold. When the authorities were in pursuit of a gang of criminals, the thieves would pass the loot to an innocent or the doziest of the gang who would then have their collar felt. The more modern variants are simply a passive transition of the original phrase. Holding the baby has a similar sense, although here one or more of the child’s parents have sought to escape their parental responsibilities. The phrases, of course, these days are used figuratively.
In American financial slang a bagholder is someone who is left holding worthless shares and thus suffers a financial loss. Better, perhaps, than having your collar felt for holding stolen goods but the origin of the idea is the same.
Filed under: Culture, History Tagged: Have with you to Saffron-Walden, origin of left holding the bag, origin of left in the lurch, the game of lourche, Thomas Nashe, what is a bagholder
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