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Man of straw

Q From Steve Haywood: A story in the Guardian on 15 January 2008 suggested an origin for the term man of straw: ‘[It] stems from the days when mostly private prosecutions were brought with bribed witnesses. They used to stand outside court with straws in their shoes to signify their testimony could be bought.’ Why do so many explanations for English turns of phrase seem so incredible? Why would someone stand outside a courtroom with straw in their shoes? And wouldn’t the simple fact you had, itself make you an unreliable witness? I suppose what I’m asking is, is it true?

A Not a hope. It’s a classic popular etymology.

The oddest thing about it is that, though man of straw has had several senses down the centuries, the Oxford English Dictionary does not include in its list that of a witness for hire. I guess the idea has come about because the term often refers to a person who has no financial means and so may be more open to being bribed than your average man in the street. But the idea of standing with straw in your shoes outside a court to indicate you’re available to take part in an illegal act for money is so funny only someone with a common-sense bypass could seriously put it forward.

Let’s go back to the early days of the term, at the very end of the sixteenth century. A man of straw then was a sham or dummy, like a scarecrow or any image stuffed with straw. It evolved quickly into a specific sense of a sham argument, an invented adverse argument that is put up by a debater, only to be triumphantly refuted. The idea of a man of straw being without money seems to have been first recorded in 1823 by John Bee, who listed the phrase in his Dictionary of the Turf: “‘Man of straw’, a bill-acceptor, without property — ‘no assets’.”

This is now the most common sense, especially in legal contexts in the UK, in which it is used to refer to somebody not worth suing or otherwise pursuing for money because he has none. The broader sense of a man of no substance is also common, as is that of a sham argument. There’s also straw man, a front man or dummy, somebody used as a cover for a dubious enterprise. Sexual equality has led to the creation and occasional appearance of straw woman.

Another usage, mainly in technical fields in the US, appeared, for example, in US Department of Defense requirements in the mid-1970s for the computer language that became Ada. It borrows from the idea of a sham argument. Strawman is the term for the first rough draft of a proposal, expected to be heavily criticised. Subsequent drafts refine the proposal and are known as woodman, tinman, ironman and steelman, which reflect the increasing resistance of the proposal to objections.

But no trace anywhere of straw-shod bribable false witnesses.

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Copyright © Michael Quinion, 1996–. All rights reserved.
Page created 2 Feb. 2008

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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: 2 February 2008.