Monday, April 23, 2012

Getting Even


Have you ever wanted to fix somebody’s wagon or settle his hash? Idioms for getting even abound, suggesting that the desire for vengeance is deeply rooted in the human heart.  “I’ll fix your wagon,” “I’ll settle your hash,” “Your goose is cooked,” or “This will put a spoke in your wheel” are all ways of saying that those who have done us wrong (or tried to) will get what’s coming to them—and it won’t be good.

Basically an Americanism, “fix your wagon” had a predecessor in “fix your flint,” which was used in print as early as 1835 in “An Old Sailor’s Yarns” by Nathaniel Ames: “We’ll fix his flint for him before the cook’s dinner is ready.” 

In this usage fix is deliberately ironic, meaning “tamper with” or “damage” rather than “make right.”  Flint was used in firearms to produce a spark, and to “fix” an opponent’s flint would ensure that he could not use his gun against you.  Fixing someone’s wagon emerged in the early 20th century and probably referred to sabotaging an adversary’s means of transportation. The earliest citation I found was a 1936 Little Orphan Annie comic strip: “Hm-M-- Why not? Once I get the old fool talked into a business deal I’ll FIX HIS WAGON.”

In the mid-20th century, the phrase morphed into “fix your little red wagon,” little and red being used as demeaning references to a child’s toy.

Putting a spoke in someone’s wheel specifically means to make progress difficult for him.  It was used as early as the 16th century and stems from the days when wooden cartwheels were solid, with a single hole in them, which enabled a stick to be inserted and to function as a brake.

The meaning of “settle your hash” is “defeat definitively and finally.” Its usage dates to at least the mid-1800s.  The meaning probably stems from hash, referring to a “meat stew” and used colloquially to mean an “untidy mess.”To make a hash” of something is to muddle it. To settle someone’s hash, therefore, is to put the mess he is causing in order.  Hash dates to 1657 from the French hacher, meaning “axe.”  The word hatchet also derives from hacher, and one etymologist speculates unconvincingly that “settle your hash” refers to “burying the hatchet,” an Iroquois ceremony in which battle axes were literally buried to symbolize peace.

Most interesting of all is the origin of “your goose is cooked.”  The 15th century Czech religious reformer Jan Hus was burned at the stake for heresy in 1415.  At the Council of Constance, which condemned him, Hus is said to have joked, “This Hus is not yet cooked and is not afraid of being cooked.”  Hus in Czech means “goose,” and thus the phrase made its way into England after Hus’s immolation.

The Bard of Buffalo Bayou’s goose has been cooked for years; in fact, it’s burnt to a crisp. 

            I’ll fix your red wagon,
            Just you wait and see.
            I’ll sic a dread dragon
            On you with much glee.
           
            I’ll settle your hash, too,
            You won’t get away,
            Where you pedal or dash to,
            I’ll see that you pay.
           
            I’ll put a great big spoke
            Smack dab in your wheel,
            You’ll hate that your rig broke,
            And let out a squeal.
           
            Your goose and your gander
            Will be cooked to a turn,           
            And I’ll loosen your dander
            Till you do a slow burn.

            What say, then, Buster--
            You’re not scared to death?
            I may find this bluster
            Was a waste of my breath!


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