Q From Graham C Reed, South Africa: While reading to my two nieces, we came across the phrase left in the lurch. The older girl questioned this, saying that lurch was what someone did, not a place to be left in. I wondered if there was more to this odd expression.
A Your niece could hardly be expected to know that there were two quite different senses of lurch with no connection between them. Both can — or once could be — either a verb or a noun.
The sort of lurch that she was thinking of, a sudden uncontrolled movement, comes from a naval expression, variously lee-larch, lee-latch or lee-lurch. It described a ship that suddenly heeled over or shifted abruptly sideways to leeward. Landsmen borrowed it around the beginning of the nineteenth century.
The lurch one may be left in is actually from a sixteenth-century French gambling game. It was played with dice and was supposedly a bit like backgammon, though nobody now knows the details. It was called lourche or l’ourche, which the Oxford English Dictionary suggests may be from a regional German word recorded as lortsch, lurtsch, lorz and lurz. A phrase, lurz werden, meant to fail to achieve some objective in a game. The term was taken over into French, not only as the name of the game but also in the phrase demeurer lourche, to lose embarrassingly badly.
We’re fairly sure about this last part because lurch was borrowed into English around the end of the sixteenth century to refer to a situation at the end of a game in which one player is beaten by a very large margin, perhaps even a maiden game in which a player scores nothing at all. You said that you had found a reference to cribbage: this was a similar situation, in which a lurch meant that one player had pegged out before the other had reached halfway around the scoring board. This usage of lurch is now rare.
To be in the lurch was to be severely discomfited. Various phrases built on the idea, including to give someone the lurch and to have someone at the lurch, respectively to get the better of a man or to have the advantage of him. By the final years of the sixteenth century, within a short time of the word arriving in the language, to be in the lurch had appeared, meaning to be in difficulty and without assistance. After all, it wasn’t the job of the other player to give any help to the loser.
The game has long since gone completely out of memory, as have most of the usages of lurch for a bad playing position, but the idiom survives, nearly always as to leave in the lurch.