Q: In sports, starters are considered “first string,” while backups are second-string, third-string, and so on. What is the significance of the “string” part of that term?
A: It all started with archery in medieval times, according to the QPB Encyclopedia of Word and Phrase Origins.
The book explains that archers carried two bowstrings for their bows when they participated in competitions. The best bowstring would be the archer’s “first string.” Should it break, the backup “second string” would be used.
This practice also was responsible for a saying in Elizabethan times, “two strings to his bow,” which referred to bringing something in reserve in the event of an accident, according to the book.
The book states that the Elizabethan Era also was responsible for coining another “first” phrase: first rate.
It explains that the rating system for British warships was done according to the amount of guns on a ship and how much the guns weighed.
There were six rates, with the first-rate ship being the highest.
That system continued until the 1800s, and eventually the term started being used in general to describe degrees of excellence.
And how’s this for a smooth transition from question to question: it turns out that the answer to our next question mentions ships, as well.
I’m going to go ahead and pretend I intentionally planned it that way.
Q: Why does someone say their pay was “docked” if their pay was deducted?
A: The Phrase Finder (phrases.org/uk) has the answer here.
Today, we think of docking as joining things together, like outer-space dockings, or providing a resting place, as in docking a ship (See? I told you there was a connection with the above answer. Do you like the way I intentionally planned it that way?). However, the website explains that the term refers to the Old English dock meaning, which was “to cut short, particularly the hair or tail of an animal.”
That term dates at least as far back as the 1300s.
Throughout the centuries, the term evolved to mean a cut in pay, although it also still refers to the clipping of an animal’s hair or tail.
Bernie Delinski writes Just Ask, which runs Wednesdays in the TimesDaily. If you’ve got a question, email it to bernie.delinski@TimesDaily.com.