Final Word

The Springboks and Don Quixote


The Springbok rugby team’s attempt Saturday before last to conquer the Wallabies on home turf fits neatly into the world of the creator of Don Quixote.

The team’s performance also fits the Afrikaans expression, which could be translated as they were “sent home with a sock or stocking over the head”. It implies that they were returned home naked with only a sock (think, beanie) over the head to hide their shame.

But with the shame having been inflicted on Australian soil and thinking of some of the insulting nicknames South Africans sometimes use for Australians, an idiom or proverbial saying coined by Spanish novelist, poet and playwright Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra in the late 16th century might be more appropriate.

The idiom, not heard all that much nowadays, goes: “Many go out for wool and come home shorn.” The original meaning or context of the expression, according to the Oxford Dictionary, was that “many who seek to better themselves or make themselves rich, end by losing what they already have”.

It took quite some searching to pin the expression to, in this case probably quite appropriately, the author of the famous character Don Quixote, best known for his attack on a windmill, imagining that it was a dragon. The work Don Quixote is also considered by many literary experts to be the first modern novel.

The expression arrived in English in 1599, thanks to the work of an English linguist and lexicographer with a very impressive productive record, John Minsheu (by some sources also recorded as Minshew).

Minsheu was among the first to publish dictionaries and grammars of the Spanish language for English. His greatest work, however, under the title Ductor in linguas (Guide into tongues) was a dictionary in no less than eleven languages.

He is also credited with being one of the inventors of subscription as a way of funding the publication of a book: his Dialoques in Spanish (1599), which introduced the shorn for wool expression to English speakers.

Another nagging Springbok problem

Many commentators ascribed the fact that the Springboks returned shorn from the game in Brisbane to a nagging problem that many of them have been nagging about for some time now.

Coach Heyneke Meyer seems to have perfected the knack of sending predetermined substitutions on to the field, regardless of what is happening in the game right before his eyes. In this instance we are using the word knack in the sarcastic sense of the word, which in its original meaning, dating back to somewhere in the 14th century, indicates a ‘clever or adroit way’ of doing something.

The origin of the word is uncertain, but mostly presumed to come from the Low German word knack, meaning ‘to crack’, in imitation of the noise when something like a stick is snapped. This is again quite appropriate when describing what happened to the Springboks’ game plan in Brisbane. 

As to the nagging nature of the problem, the word nag dates back to the early 19th century and probably comes from the Scandinavian and/or Low German word nagga, meaning ‘gnaw, irritate or provoke’.

But nag, in the abusive sense, can also mean an ‘old horse’, and probably derives from ‘neigh’, coming from Middle High German nēgen, imitating the high-pitched cry of a horse.

Now, I can think of quite a few sarcastic comments about the Springboks’ performance in this context as well, but will rather leave it to the imagination of the readers.

by Piet Coetzer

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