Q From Andrew Martin: Having moved from the UK to the US, I’m often entertained by the different use of words. I’ve used a term here in the US that gets blank looks — to stick one’s oar in. Could you expose its history?
A No problem. The idiom to stick one’s oar in means to interfere or meddle in some matter that doesn’t concern one. It’s a close relative of sticking one’s nose into something.
It’s now less common in Britain than it once was, though it does turn up from time to time, as here in the Daily Mail in August 2005: “He feels he must be [there] today. Not to stick his oar in, you understand, but to offer moral support.” Many Americans have told me that it is indeed known in the US, though it may be of regional distribution or used by only certain age groups. Ursula K Le Guin employed it as a neat reference back to its original context in The Dispossessed: “An old adviser, Ferdaz ... liked to stick his oar in even when it steered the boat off the course he wanted.”
The expression dates back to the sixteenth century and has turned up in all sorts of different formulations down the centuries. The original was to have an oar in every man’s boat, meaning to be involved in every man’s business or affairs. Variations include he’ll have an oar in everything, he will put in his oar, and don’t you put your oar in.
One reason some Americans may still be familiar with it is that it appears in W S Gilbert’s libretto of the Mikado: “And you’re just as bad as he is with your cock-and-a-bull stories about catching his eye and his whistling an air. But that’s so like you! You must put in your oar!” [To pre-empt any enquiry about cock-and-a-bull, this is the original form, dating from the eighteenth century, of the more common cock-and-bull.]