Monday, July 22, 2013

Baton Twirling

Twice in recent days, in journals that should know better, I’ve seen the word baton used as if it were batten, as in “baton down the hatches.”  It is useful to know the difference, especially since it is very awkward to secure a hatch with a baton, or, for that matter, to conduct a symphony orchestra with a batten.

Baton, usually pronounced with the accent on the second syllable, and rhyming with upon, can denote several things: a club or cudgel, like a billy-club; a slender, tapered rod used by an orchestra conductor; a hollow metal tube carried by a relay team; a heraldic band; or a hollow metal rod with weighted bulbs at both ends twirled by drum majors and Miss America candidates.  It’s a French word derived from the Late Latin bastum, which means “stick.” Although it may sometimes be pronounced to rhyme with fatten, especially in the case of Baton Rouge, the capital of Louisiana, it is not interchangeable with batten.

Batten, which does rhyme with fatten, means a thin strip of lumber used to seal or reinforce a joint, or some other similar bar or support. Its origin is Latin battuere through French batre (to “beat”) and Middle English bataunt, a “finished board.”

The Bard of Buffalo Bayou speaks softly but carries a big baton—it’s up to you to decide which kind.

            A gorgeous drum majorette
            Could twirl her baton with no sweat,
            It was tossed in the sky,
            And then caught on the fly,
            With a flourish you’d never forget.

            But one day this poor majorette
            Did something she lived to regret,
            Her baton was mislaid,
            And instead, I’m afraid,
            She twirled an old bayonet.

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