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What Paddy shot at

Q From Paul Winterbine, Melbourne, Australia: I’ve recently discovered your very entertaining site and, after reading the Morgan’s Orchard cribbage entry, recalled an expression my father (who was born in 1907) used when we played the game. When declaring a non-scoring hand he would say he had what Paddy shot at. The expression always amused me but I never thought to ask where he got it from.

A I’ve not encountered this before, so I went hunting. Like Paddy, however, I bagged nothing tangible.

The sense of what Paddy shot at is always "nothing". At first, I took this to be a deprecatory comment about the supposed lack of firearms ability of Irishmen, not least because and missed is occasionally added to the end. But a note from a reader, Phil Vassar, introduced me to another form, what the little boy shot at, and his explanation suggests a different inspiration:

The sense of it is that the little boy shot his gun, as little boys will, at nothing at all — his only target, you see, was the joy of shooting and the glorious noise it made. Not, I grant, particularly complimentary to little boys, no more than what Paddy shot at is to the Irish. Still, to anyone who grew up hearing and saying either phrase the image is graphic and immediate.

What Paddy shot at is still around, though the mild ethnic slur has made it less acceptable (it sometimes appears as what Patty shot at, whether from sensitivity, mishearing or an unconscious substitution of t for d, I can’t tell). A well-known example associated with cribbage is this:

Ma kicked Mr Charlton playfully on the shins under the table, laughing. “Got to watch him, Mister Charlton, playing crib. Parson’s Poke, my foot. Sharp as a packet o’ pins.” “Twenty-two, nine’ll do. Twenty-five, six’s is alive. Twenty-eight, Billy Wake. Twenty-seven, four’s in heaven. Twenty-three, eight’s a spree. In the combined turmoil of counting and the glare of the television Mr. Charlton felt a certain madness coming back. “What you got, Pop?” “Terrible. What Paddy shot at.”

The Darling Buds of May, by H E Bates, 1958. Parson’s poke is another cribbage term, whose sense and origin I’m still working on!

It doesn’t seem to be an invention of cribbage players, since it appears historically in other contexts:

But I hope, sorr, though it goes agin my own counthry to say it, what you bring back won’t be as much as Paddy shot at.

The Wreck of the Nancy Bell, by J C Hutcheson, 1885.

But it’s yet older. Half a century earlier, it turned up in a US newspaper in a list of toasts at a banquet to mark the 101st anniversary of the birth of Thomas Paine and was even then clearly well-known:

The pledged sacred honor of the Banks — Just what the Paddy shot at.

The Boston Investigator, 9 Feb. 1838.

A contemporary US usage would seem to confirm it was an eighteenth-century creation, though I can’t find it earlier:

“No more than Paddy shot at, as I was accustomed to say, when a youth,” said Mr Robinson. “And what was that?” inquired Mrs Robinson, with simplicity. “Nothing,” said the solicitor; and the two companions burst into a fit of pleasant laughter.

Horace Vernon: or, Life in the West, 1839.

None of this gives a clue as to its ultimate origins. It’s just possible it has some link with an historical event in which an Irishman deliberately missed his target. But I’ve no idea what that might have been.

Page created 20 Feb. 2010

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Last modified: 20 February 2010.