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A straw man's best friend?

Posted by Word Camel on April 01, 2002

In Reply to: Straw man vs Man of Straw posted by Marian on April 01, 2002

: : : : : All this talk of Druids has got me thinking about the phrase, to set up a straw man, meaning to attribute a position to someone that he doesn't hold and then to refute it in order to make it seem as if one has won the argument.

: : : : : I was thinking of the practice of burning a straw man on Guy Fawkes night - which I understand is the sort of echo of Druidic harvest rituals. I also wondered about using straw men to practice combat with or using a straw man for a decoy.

: : : : : Who was the straw man? Where does the phrase come from?

: : : : That's an interesting question. It is indeed true that the Druids - clearly an inflammatory subject in more ways than one - were fond of creating giant wicker figures, filling them with animals and also people, and then setting fire to them as some form of sacrifice (sources include Diodorus and Strabo here before anyone asks).

: : : : However, as to "straw man", I'd always presumed that it was an alternative expression for an Aunt Sally, which I understand to be the name for a female straw figure set up at country fairs in days of yore for the paying public to throw things at.

: : : : What really interests me though is Ms Camel's comment as to the burning of effigies in the UK on Guy Fawkes night being related to druidic practice. This had never occurred to me, since I simply assumed that the tradition dated back to the early 1600's and was a celebration of Guy Fawkes' failure to blow up the Houses of Parliament, his capture and subsequent execution.
: : : : The potential druidic link is interesting, since November 5th - Guy Fawkes night - falls very close to the date of the Celtic fire festival of Samhain. Does anyone have any referenced examples of the tradition pre-dating 1605?

: : : Nope.

: : : From the archives:

: : : A STRAW MAN is "a weakling; one who is all facade, no substance; also, a false issue or phony candidate set up to be easily knocked down...comes from the farmer's scarecrow, and from its military use as a false target set up to draw enemy fire..." A STALKING HORSE is "a decoy; a candidate put forward to split a vote or deadlock a convention, concealing another candidate's plan. In hunting, a stalking horse is used to conceal a sportsman stalking game, allowing the hunter to get close to his quarry; from this expression, used in print since 1519, has come to mean a person put forward to mislead." From Safire's New Political Dictionary by William Safire (Random House, New York, 1993).

: : Straw: A man of straw is now-a-days a name for a weak minded individual with no real strength of character. It may be that this derives from comparison with a straw filled scarecrow but, in 1811, a man of straw was a hired hand, so called from having straw stuck in his shoes to distinguish him. Presumably he had no chance of offering any sort of opinion to his employers.
: : Another possible origin comes from the "Straw Men" who loitered near English courts with a straw in one of their shoes - thus indicating that they were prepared to give false evidence in return for a fee; they also didn't have opinions of their own.

: The phrase 'straw dogs' occurs in Lao-tzu's writings from around 500 B.C. according to Bartlett's Familiar Quotations:

: Heaven and Earth are not humane.
: They regard all things as straw dogs.

: Bartlett's contains this footnote referencing the phrase--"Straw dogs were used in sacrifices and then discarded."

Sorry I couldn't resist