Cockups and Botches


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A cri de coeur his week from an eminent reader, none other than Roger Whiteley, chairman of the Joint Services Board. And in exchange for a rebate on the next JSB levy, Wordsworth is only too happy to solve Mr. Whiteley’s problem.

It seems that not all was going to plan with some JSB venture, a not uncommon state of bureaucratic affairs – so much so that one committee member was prompted to describe it as “a right cock-up.” Realising there was a lady present, he withdrew the comment lest it gave offence.

It seems that JSB members are obviously very concerned with each other’s sensitivities, unlike their counterparts at the Durban City Hall where they hurl the most outrageous abuse at each other without so much as by your leave.

Thus did Mr. Whiteley intervene to reassure the cocker-upper that there was nothing offensive in the term, reminding him that it was of respectable Royal Navy pedigree.

He sought confirmation from Wordsworth, who also had a vague recollection of nautical origins, but sadly no source could be found to confirm or deny the derivation.

However, all was not lost, as the researches shed new light on a near relative of the cock-up, namely the balls-up. Contrary to popular opinion, the only anatomical connection is with an equine foot or an apian embrace.

The first happened in British winters, when snow would get balled up in the hollow of a horse’s hoof. As a result, the poor beast would behave as if on skates.

Gradually, the term took on a figurative as well as literal complexion, so that a character in 1923 novel remarked: “They’re always getting in the way of a liberal government and balling things up.”

The second was a phenomenon of British summers, when bees got a bit carried away and hugged the queen of the hive to death. In the bee-keeping business, that’s known as a balls-up, because the busy ones surround the queen in a dense cluster resembling a ball, often with the result that she is suffocated.

A late 19th century guide to bee-keeping warns: “If very many pass the guards (of a strange hive) unchallenged, they are likely to ball the queen and possibly destroy her.”

Harper’s Magazine of September, 1887, contains the sentence: “You seem all balled up about something” … “balled up! …I’m done for.”

Let’s hope the same fate will not befall JSB members who let slip the odd questionable expression.


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