“Give just a little power and they go awire.”

Thoughts of the electrical grid flash through my mind!

We are familiar with adjectives and verbs that begin with the prefix a-. Naturally we have the ones that begin with the Latin-derived a- (or an-), meaning “non-“, or “lacking”: amoral, anaesthetic, amorphic, anaerobic.

In English we also use the prefix a- to mean “while,” “at,” or “of”: a-hunting, a-sea, Alain-a-Dale. Virtually invisible in the word because so commonly used: ahead, ago. On Tuesday a post on one of the blogs I enjoy, “Becoming Madame” (which you may visit via my blogroll), was an appreciation of Edith Wharton’s The House of Mirth, and in the course of discussing its rich writing style Madame noted that she was unfamiliar with the word “agrope.” I offered this comment:

For “agrope,” I would suggest (I who am seeing the word out of context here) that it means “in the process of groping,” or “busy groping,” as when your head is spinning it is “aspin,” and when Froggy goes out he goes out “a-wooing.” A-hmm, a-hmm! I suspect it’s a collapse from “at” something, just as now we recognize as synonyms the phrase “at sea” and the word “asea.”

The English a- is best recognized if a hyphen is present, but the hyphen is not always present. My assumption was that Madame would have recognized the word immediately had Wharton written it as “a-grope.”

And with this student, my instinctive assumption was that he was referring to people going a-wire. That applies an English pattern to an unfamiliar term, and it’s also a natural pairing with “power.”

Then I read on to the next sentences, and discovered that my student was not talking about electric power and insulated wiring, but about kings and dictators. Give them just a little power (over people, over budgets, over the military, etc.), and they go awire.

Well, just what is “awire,” then? Searching my brain for associations in popular culture, I came relatively soon upon “A-Rod” and “J-Lo.” Applying that pattern led me to “A-wire.” So, if you haven’t been a-head of me all a-long, I”m sure you’re a-breast of me now: a-HA!

From A-wire, such a short step to “HAY-wire.” No, my student ‘as no Cockney in ‘is ‘istory, but nor has he any HAY in his history, let alone baling wire, used to bale, what else, hay. (Webster’s says “haywire”—hastily made, out of control or order, mentally upset—derives from “the use of baling wire for makeshift repairs,” showing that my own mental image, of a coil of wire-for-hay turning into an uncontrollable springy tangle when unbound, was also a little off-target, although at least in the right field of reference.)

And so I believe what we have here is another example of hearing an unfamiliar expression and translating it into something more comfortable in the hearer’s lexicon. For a word that begins with the prefix “a-,” I’m accustomed to stressing the root word rather than the prefix. I also do this with other prefixes: I refer, for example, to the deFENCE on a football team as well as in a court. My student, on the other hand, probably roots for the Giants’ DEfence, and definitely knows how to say A-rod. And there you are.

I’m going to miss my merry Wichita linemen-for-the-county, stringing electrical wire from pole to pole so that they, too, can give a little power to the people. On the other hand, I’ve been given petty despots bouncing off the walls of their throne-rooms, an image far less noble but entertaining in its own way.

And, since all I did was correct the word, my student will never know how much fun he gave me.

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About RAB

Teacher of English writing and literature (college-level); academic-freedom activist; editor and copy editor; theater director, costumer, actress, playwright. View all posts by RAB

5 responses to ““Give just a little power and they go awire.”

  • Phil Schaefer

    Perhaps the student had “go awry” in mind. I think “go haywire” may have been more vivid than the student intended.

    • RAB

      I didn’t even think of “awry”! That is closer to the sound of what he wrote, certainly. If that’s what he meant, though, he doesn’t really know what “awry” means, judging from the content that followed. Maybe we need a kind of portmanteau word, “awire,” meaning “crazy and cockeyed,” not as violent as “amok” but moving in that direction?

  • yearstricken

    I tend toward the idea that the student meant “haywire” and was trying to show the contrast between a little power and a lot of craziness.

  • Phil Schaefer

    A comment from Jim Wilton on the wordorigins website http://www.wordorigins.org/index.php/forums/viewthread/3287/ says: “I remember bailing hay with wire in Vermont in the 1980s. I have always been grateful for that afternoon or two of work because it taught me the origins of two expressions. All you have to do is cut taut bailing wires and watch it coil into a tangled mess to know what ‘gone haywire’ means.” So RAB’s first thought (” of a coil of wire-for-hay turning into an uncontrollable springy tangle when unbound”) was a good one. My father, born in 1903, who spent a lot of time on farms, used the word “haywire” to refer to something that had gone badly wrong. The word doesn’t seem to be used as much now, even though there are many occasions for it.

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