Q: "pull straws", figuratively?

Joel S. Berson Berson at ATT.NET
Thu Aug 19 22:40:31 UTC 2010

Is there evidence of a figurative sense for "pull straws"?  The OED has
      1611 R. COTGRAVE Dict. French & Eng. Tongues at Ceincture, They
thinke their wiues liue *peakingly at home, and pull strawes..or blow
their fingers.

The sense I get here is that the women have nothing better to do than
pull straws like an earthworm or a titmose does.

There are a few tantalizing quotations in Google Books before 1850
that hint at an idle or unproductive action.  (One must ignore
pulling straws to make a choice.)  One is from _Poems_, by Peter
Bayley, allegedly 1804:

Warmth! Heavens! is there no cause?
Look round; see dukes and marquises pull straws;
See viscounts, earls, and barons, fixed in state,
To view....a race of maggots o'er a plate:
Their wives and daughters, equally refined,
To faro, wholly dedicate the mind;

These all seem like idle, unproductive time-occupiers.

Another is from _Hyde Nugent: a tale of fashionable life_, allegedly 1827:

He seems well in cash now, but from a pigeon he has become a very
turtle, and will not even take the trouble to pull straws, so lazy
and loving has he become.


The American Dialect Society - http://www.americandialect.org

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