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Haymaker

Q From Michael Templeton: Following up your mention of haymakers last week, a haymaker is, of course, also the wild swing that some would say follows the arc of the scythe to the jaw of the recipient and which is scorned by the professional pugilist. But when, where, and who coined this visually apt expression?

A As to when, the Oxford English Dictionary’s first example is from 1912. You found two from 1907. I can do slightly better, having found a couple of examples in American newspaper reports in 1904.

The next bout was the funniest ever. A little midget of a colored lad named “The Rat” was put against a big black burly named Harvey Wilson. “The Rat” was swifter than greased lightning and only his foot work saved him from being sent through the roof from some of the hard haymakers sent at him by Harvey

Spokane Press (Washington), 5 Apr. 1904.

This one is from the following year:

Corbett then landed left and right short arm jabs to the jaw. He tried his right hay maker but ran into a stiff right to the jaw.

Nevada State Journal, 1 Mar. 1905.

This is not Gentleman Jim Corbett, the American professional boxer and former world heavyweight champion, who had retired from the ring in 1903. This was Young Corbett II, real name William Rothwell, who took the ring name of Corbett in honour of the older man. He became the world featherweight champion but lost to Battling Nelson in this bout. Reports of his fights in the years immediately afterwards often refer to his haymaker swing as his signature blow. This seems to have done much to popularise the term outside the boxing fraternity itself.

Who actually named the blow remains unknown.

Perhaps surprisingly, there is some disagreement about the precise imagery behind the expression. Yours is the one that usually appears, with the blow being a swing of the arm mimicking that of the haymaker’s scythe.

That’s clearly the right idea but one or two British writers instead mention the hayrake or two-pronged hayfork. That’s because in British usage the men with the scythes were mowers (as in “One man went to mow, went to mow a meadow”) and it’s the men behind them who were the haymakers, who used these other implements to drag the cut hay into windrows and turn it from time to time to help it dry.

However, among people not connected with agriculture, haymaker has usually been the generic term for anyone involved in haymaking, no matter his job (the Collins Dictionary defines it comprehensively as “a person who helps to cut, turn, toss, spread or carry hay”) and US users were surely thinking of a haymaker as a man with a scythe.

Another shift is that some dictionaries define a haymaker as a heavy or forceful blow, without the implication of its being a swing of the arm. Haymakers were brawny men and any blow from one of them would undoubtedly have been powerful. But that wasn’t the original idea. Now haymakers with scythes are extinct, that characteristic swing seems to be slowly dying from our collective memories.

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Copyright © Michael Quinion, 1996–. All rights reserved.
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Last modified: 1 March 2014.