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Throw a tub to a whale

Q From Bart Brown: Could you enlighten me on a saying whose form I can’t remember exactly but which includes a reference to a tub and a whale? It means to distract or confuse. It’s common in American politics.

A That’s almost certainly throw a tub to a whale. I’m surprised to hear that you believe it to be common — I’d not come across it before you wrote about it and I can’t find any modern examples, other than a couple mentioning that it exists. The evidence suggests that it’s long since defunct.

The standard story of its origin is recorded in William Pulleyn’s Etymological Companion of 1853:

The Greenland vessels, and indeed the South Sea vessels, are sometimes (especially after stormy weather) so surrounded with whales, that the situation of the crew becomes dangerous. When this is the case, it is usual to throw out a tub in order to divert their attention; when the marine monsters amuse themselves in tossing this singular sort of a plaything into the air, to and fro, as children do a shuttlecock. Their attention being drawn, every sail is hoisted, and the vessel pursues its course to its destination. Hence came the saying, “Throwing a Tub to the Whale!”

The earliest known reference to this maritime technique is in the introduction to Jonathan Swift’s satire A Tale of A Tub of 1704. It was a counterblast to Thomas Hobbes’ treatise Leviathan of 1651 and was intended to distract it “from tossing and sporting with the Commonwealth”. In the Bible, a leviathan — the word comes from Hebrew — was an enormous aquatic beast, such as Jonah’s whale. However, Hobbes meant by it the organism of political society. As another layer in Swift’s satire, tale of a tub was also an idiom at the time for what we would now call a cock-and-bull story.

Though the phrase throw a tub to a whale isn’t recorded before Swift, Sir James Macintosh reported in a book of 1846 that the idea appears in an old translation of The Ship of Fools, a famous work by the German writer Sebastian Brant of 1494, though I’ve not been able to find it in the Barclay translation of 1504. Whatever its origin, the expression throw a tub to a whale came to mean creating a distraction.

A good example is in Frederick Marryat’s A Diary in America, With Remarks on its Institutions, of 1839, in which he complains about the US attitude to Britain:

The great cause of this increase of hostility against us is the democratical party having come into power, and who consider it necessary to excite animosity against this country. When ever it is requisite to throw a tub to the whale, the press is immediately full of abuse; everything is attributed to England, and the machinations of England; she is, by their accounts, here, there, and everywhere, plotting mischief and injury, from the Gulf of Florida to the Rocky Mountains.

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Copyright © Michael Quinion, 1996–. All rights reserved.
Page created 3 Jan. 2009

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The English language is forever changing. New words appear; old ones fall out of use or alter their meanings. World Wide Words tries to record at least a part of this shifting wordscape by featuring new words, word histories, words in the news, and the curiosities of native English speech.

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Last modified: 3 January 2009.