A man of straw
It is a long time, if I ever truly was, since I could have been described as a man of straw, a phrase we use to describe someone without any assets. It is often used in a judicial context when damages are being awarded against someone only for their lawyer to point out that they are a man of straw without two farthings to rub together.
In 1823 John Bee defined a man of straw in his Dictionary of the Turf as “a bill acceptor, without property – no assets”. Gambling which is the natural concomitant of horse racing is prone to leave the unsuccessful punter financially embarrassed and it is not too fanciful to think of it as bookies’ argot for someone who hasn’t the assets to back his wager. In the 17th century there was a proverb which contrasted straw with gold – “a man of straw is worth a woman of gold” – a tad sexist for sure but the sense surely is linking straw with a lack of assets. Quite how it gravitated into the court room is anyone’s guess – perhaps some lawyers or judges were patrons of the race course and adopted this colourful phrase for their own purposes.
For farmers one of the perennial battles is keeping birds and other predators from their seeds and a popular device over the ages to achieve this is to erect a scarecrow in the field which had a vaguely human form and was often stuffed with straw. Inevitably, a straw man became a synonym for a decoy or a dummy or a sham. The Return of Parnassus, the third of three plays performed in London as part of the Christmas festivities of St John’s, Cambridge and dating from between 1598 and 1602, has this marvellous line, “he braggs…of his liberalitie to schollers..but indeed he is a meere man of strawe, a great lump of drousie earth”.
Another sense soon developed, that of an artificial construct for the purposes of refuting the arguments and enhancing the power and brilliance of your own logic. In 1624 T Gataker wrote in A Discussion of the Popish Discussion of Transubstantiation “to skirmish with a man of straw of his owne making”. In Advice to the Men of Shaftesbury, printed for John Smith in 1681, we find “I rather suppose the Some that say so never were men of God’s making but mere men of straw set up by Master Bencher, for a Tryal of his own Skill in Confutation”. In describing the format of the Socratic dialogues T DeQuincey wrote in 1859 “in fact, Socrates and some man of straw or good humoured nine-pin set up to be bowled down as a matter of course”.
The phase spawned a variant, particularly common across the pond, straw man which was used to suggest an artificial opponent as in this usage in The Philosophical Review of 1858, “or, better, against a straw-man which he constructs himself…” In more recent popular culture the most famous straw man quote appeared in the film, the Wizard of Oz where Dorothy slaps the paw of the Cowardly Lion, saying “It’s bad enough picking on a straw man, but when you go picking on poor little dogs.” Of course, the straw man refers to a scarecrow and is not used metaphorically.
More recently, the phrase is increasingly used as a compound adjective as in straw-man device or technique or issue, to describe something which has been floated to be tested and, if necessary, knocked down, a variant of our Aunt Sally.
So now we know!