Such is the dynamism of our native tongue that words come in and out of fashion. One such word which is languishing in undeserved obscurity is understrapper which is a synonym for an underling, a subordinate, someone who takes orders. The prefix, under, is straightforward enough to understand and conveys the sense of inferiority of status and rank. What is of more interest is the second part of the word, strapper. The origin of that part of our word can be seen in the now obsolete verb, to strap, which meant to work tirelessly and energetically. The noun strapper conveyed this sense to describe a labourer or someone who groomed horses. So someone who was answerable to someone engaged in menial tasks was truly the lowest of the low.
The one word we still use in everyday speech from this root is strapping which we use to describe someone who is large, robust, and muscular. It is almost exclusively reserved as an adjective to describe younger people of both sexes but when it first emerged in the middle of the 17th century, it was used exclusively to describe young women. In George Thornley’s translation of Longus’ Daphnis and Chloe, from 1657, we find; “And, now and then, one of the bolder strapping girles would catch him in her arms, and kisse him.”
By the start of the 18th century understrapper was firmly established as a description of someone performing a menial task. The satirist, Thomas Brown, produced a book of hoax letters, purportedly written by people who had recently died, called Letters from the Dead to the Living, published in 1702. Brown imagined his fellow satirist, Joseph Haines, to have written; “and as I shall have upon occasion now and then for some Understrapper to draw teeth for me, or to be my Toad-eater upon the stage, if you will accept so mean an Employment … I’ll give you Meat, Drink, Washing, and Lodging, and Four Marks per annum.”
In 1742 Charles Knight in his Popular History of England, attributed to Jonathan Swift this sentence; “I have put an understrapper upon writing a twopenny pamphlet..” – clearly the job was not worthy of one of our finest satirists. Francis Plowden wrote in his History of Ireland from its Union with Great Britain in 1811, “at the vulgar insistence of some secretary’s secretary’s secretary, some understrpper’s understrapper’s understrapper…” giving little room for doubt as to where that individual featured in the hierarchy.
Thomas Hardy used the word in a rather contrived simile in his novel of triangular love, A Pair of Blue Eyes, published in 1873; “said Stephen, rather en l‘sir and confused with the kind of confusion that assails an understrapper when he has been enlarged by accident to the dimensions of a superior, and is somewhat rudely pared down to his original size.” Alas, by the 21st century, the word had almost disappeared from sight.
A variant, also obsolete, was under-spur-leather, the spur-leather being a strap securing a spur to a rider’s foot, a vivid description of the lowliness of someone so described. It was contemporaneous with understrapper, appearing in John Dennis’ Remarks upon Mr Pope’s Translation of Homer of 1717; “who from an under-spur-leather to the Law, is become an understrapper to the Playhouse..”
The restoration of either or both to our modern-day language would be welcome, methinks.