A chase, a waste, and ugly threads


Thanks to a 1973 film and subsequent TV series about Harvard Law School, this term has come to mean the relentless pursuit of good grades. But the esteemed university is not where the phrase originated. It derives from the ancient game of Hares and Hounds, in which some players - the hares - start off on a tear, scattering pieces of paper called "the scent." The pursuers - the hounds - follow the trail and try to locate the hares by chasing the paper. This playful pastime was all in good fun in the old days, and no one was graded. Today, however, a paper chase may also mean just trying to keep up with modern-day correspondence!


Wild oats, though related to their useful namesake, are tall, vigorous, pesky weeds that grow abundantly in fields in North America and Europe. They are difficult to eradicate. Their Latin name, Avena fatua, is derived from fatuus, meaning "foolish." Sowing these worthless, pernicious, cereal look-alikes would indeed be a foolish thing to do. Since Roman times, scholars extended the meaning of this expression beyond the farming community to mean "to act foolishly and indulge in fruitless excesses, especially when one is young and vigorous." In the 16th and 17th centuries, in fact, indulgent young men were called "wild oats."


As far back as the Middle Ages, the unfavorable or "seamy" side of things referred to the underside of tapestries and carpets, where the crude seams or rough threads could be seen. Shakespeare was the first to artfully record the term's figurative usage, in "Othello" (Act IV, Scene 2). Iago's wife, Emilia, calls her husband's wit "seamy," or basically, a turn for the worse.

Sources: Brewer's Dictionary of Phrase and Fable, by Ivor Evans; The Encyclopedia of Word and Phrase Origins, by Robert Hendrickson; 'Have a Nice Day - No Problem,' by Christine Ammer; 'Loose Cannons and Red Herrings,' by Robert Claiborne; The Morris Dictionary of Word and Phrase Origins,' by William and Mary Morris; The World Book Dictionary.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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