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Parliament at loggerheads, but Jack Robinson rules – okay?

Logger heads.jpg

As parliament is coming to the close of its business for the year, political parties are at loggerheads, causing the institution to malfunction, but Jack Robinson still seems to rule.

While the present number one still seems to be in control of his own destiny, that can all change in a trice or faster than you can say Jack’s name, leaving President Zuma all at sea.

Albeit with a reduced majority for his party, Mr Zuma returned to parliament seemingly in full control. Three months later (in political terms “faster than you can say Jack Robinson”), everything has changed and the majority party was at loggerheads with the opposition parties, causing parliament as an institution to malfunction.

Ironically the history of the “Jack Robinson” expression, which can be traced back to the 17th century, has much in common with what is happening in parliament, despite a variety of explanations as to its origin.

One story holds that between 1660 and 1679 Sir John Robinson, Jack being a diminutive form of John, was the commanding officer of the Tower of London and the speed with which a beheading with an axe could be executed there was the basis for the expression.

Another story, closer to accusations against today’s Zuma administration, recounts that Robinson also held a judiciary appointment in the City of London and could have a condemned felon transported to the Tower, where he commanded the execution “faster than you can say Jack Robinson”.

Finally there is a story, resonating even more with today’s reality, about one John Robinson who was Joint Treasury Secretary and government whip, organising elections and political patronage between 1770 and 1782. Nathaniel Wraxall wrote about him as a political fixer: "No man in the House (parliament) knew so much of its original composition, the means by which every individual attained his seat, and, in many instances, how far and through what channels he might prove accessible."

Robinson acquired the reputation that he could fix something faster than you could say “Jack Robinson".


Many members of the ordinary public contemplating the state of parliament, with the different political parties “at loggerheads”, will nod their heads when one tells them that the term first used was ‘blockhead’, to describe a “stupid person”. It was used, among others, in 1588 by Shakespeare in Love’s Labour’s Lost.

It comes from the term ‘logger-head’ or ‘block-head’, which was a thick, heavy block of timber attached to a horse’s leg to prevent it from running away. By the 17th century it also came in use as the term for a tool in the maritime industry when it was used as the term for a “thick-headed iron tool”, used for pitching sails. It was a long-handled tool with a spherical cup (head) at one end in which pitch or tar could be heated. These tools could, and apparently were at times also used as weapons among warring sailors, putting them at ‘loggerheads’ – hence the modern meaning of describing a dispute.

Staying with the maritime tradition, everything surrounding Mr Zuma and his status in the body politic of the country can also change suddenly or “in a trice”.

“A trice”, as in suddenly, in a very short space of time, also derives from the maritime world of old. ‘Trice’ was the name given to a 14th century nautical invention – a windlass or pulley – which made it possible to hoist a sail with one pull or tug of a rope.

The evil of it all

The ‘malfunction’ of parliament because the opposition was at loggerheads with the majority party over the ‘maltreatment’ of parliament by their leader and the alleged ‘maladministration’ of the rules of parliament by the speaker also have something to say about the nature of what is happing in “the house of the people”.

The very versatile prefix ‘mal’ migrated via French from the Latin male (adverb)
or malus (adjective) meaning bad or evil.

by Piet Coetzer

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