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Friday, 9 August 2013

Cracking the whip

Having been whipping around the world for eight weeks and a bit, it struck me on the way in to think a bit more about the various meanings of "whip".

When Charles Dickens wanted to paint a picture of the route to be followed to reach the degraded Jacob's Island haunt where Bill Sikes took refuge at the end of Oliver Twist, he wrote of: 
Jostling with unemployed labourers of the lowest class, ballast-heavers, coal-whippers, brazen women, ragged children, and the raff and refuse of the river . . .
(Let me note here that when we were in Rome, three weeks ago, we were caught by a thunderstorm, a few blocks from the Spanish Steps, and took refuge under an awning of the Hotel Royal Splendide in the Via di Porta Pinciana. We walk everywhere, and had neglected to carry waterproofing.  Immediately, a flunky with a top hat opened a window behind us and offered us an umbrella. We thanked him and declined, but he insisted. We weren't guests, we said, but still he proffered the umbrella.  It was easier to accept and we sauntered off, please with our good luck. He retreated, no doubt pleased at ridding his five-star hotel of such riff-raff, or as Dickens had it, such raff and refuse. Now back to the story...)

Whipping coal, which seems like a particularly useless occupation, was of considerable interest to Dickens: in Dombey and Son, we learn of a ballad which set forth: 
 . . . the courtship and nuptials of a promising young coal-whipper with a certain 'lovely Peg,' the accomplished daughter of the master and part-owner of a Newcastle collier . . .
 That, however, leaves us little further ahead, save that now we have a hint that this is something to do with shipping coal from one place to another. Also in Dombey and Son, Captain Cuttle walks at peace:
  . . . down among the mast, oar, and block makers, ship-biscuit bakers, coal-whippers, pitch-kettles, sailors, canals, docks, swing-bridges, and other soothing objects.
 Finally, in Great Expectations, we find the answer: 
 . . . here, were colliers by the score and score, with the coal-whippers plunging off stages on deck, as counterweights to measures of coal swinging up, which were then rattled over the side into barges . . .
The coal-whipper, we are assured by many learned authorities, was a man who operated a whip, a long pole, suspended in the middle. This could be used to lever up baskets of coal, provided a suitable weight, in the form of a person, was applied to the other end.

When we think of whipping and ships, most of us would think first of floggings meted out by cruel Captain Blighs  and the like (no, Bligh was by no means cruel: that was a foul calumny put about by political opponents and the supporters of the syphilitic son of a Portsmouth tailor who wanted to be accounted a gentleman), but in fact most of the whipping seen by sailors at sea was when a line was whipped, rather than being spliced at the end.

Splicing made a line thicker, and so harder to reeve, or pass, through a block, which is a pulley when it leaves the land, so a back-splice on a line's end could be a problem. A nautical whip can also be a line which needs to be rove through a block, to allow simple lifts — again using human counter-weights, and making the long-pole explanation of the coal-whip a bit dubious.

The Bible hardly mentions whips, save for a passage in 1 Kings 12:11 " . . . my father hath chastised you with whips, but I will chastise you with scorpions." All the same, English churches had dog-whippers — one was appointed as late as 1856, according to Cobham Brewer, who cared about such things: this official was responsible for controlling working dogs who accompanied their owners to worship.

The dog-whipper did this using whips and dog-tongs. In the Anglican church, St Luke's Day, October 18, is dog-whipping day, supposedly because a dog once ate a consecrated wafer on this day.

Lola Montez was a dab
hand with the horse whip.
She is shown here, wielding
it left-handed.
There seems to have been a convention
that damsels planning to ply the horse
whip ought, first, to adopt a state close
to déshabillé.
The English seem to have far too much interest in dog-whipping. The French, on the other hand, do not seem to whip dogs at all, but where we would speak of having other fish to fry, a Francophone will have another cat to whip — but to sailors, the whip is a cat, one with nine tails.

At last we have got to the beating whip, as in horse-whipping an editor as Lola Montez famously did on one occasion, and the same origin gives us the party whip in English-style Parliaments.

This is somebody who plays the role of a whipper-in. In the art of fox-hunting, a whipper-in, keeps the hounds on the straight and narrow. The party whip keeps the other members in line, and can even issue a three-line whip.

The word relates to a German word wippe, meaning a quick movement or a leap — which takes us straight to the coal-whip, or to the Dutch wippen, which means swing or leap: the Dutch wagtail, for example, is a wipstaart. Here, staart is the tail, but we see the word in English in stark naked, which is a politer way of saying with a bare bum.

Most uses of whip seem to be more to do with fast movement, as in the fast movement of a whip's tip as it cracks, which is very fast indeed. In fact, if the physicists are to be believed, the tip actually exceeds the speed of sound, and causes a small sonic boom. Luckily coal whips did not travel that fast, or the coal would be launched skyward, and take about 66 seconds to come back down again.

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