phrases, sayings, idioms and expressions at

Surprise! Nautical origin!

Posted by R. Berg on February 07, 2003

In Reply to: With respect posted by Bob on February 07, 2003

: : : : : : : I'd like to find out the origin and meaning of this phrase. Thanks!

: : : : : : The transitive of "spin" has a meaning of forming or creating as when a spider "spins" a web.
: : : : : : So when someone "spins a tale" he or she is creating or forming a story.

: : : : : I think this could have a different origin. In the UK the saying is often 'to spin a yarn' - a yarn being a story or tale. At first this seems an odd combination of words until it's remembered that, in the old days, women used to spin yarn on spinning wheels. They frequently did this in groups and, to pass the time, they often told each other stories. In time the words came to mean the production of the stories themselves.

: : : : Those two ideas don't seem so different. Spinning a (spider's) web and spinning (wool) yarn are the same kind of process--fiber production--from a point of view that leaves out the technical details.

: : : I may be indulging in some hair-splitting here ("un-spinning" perhaps?) but all three activities: a group of women spinning yarn, the noiseless, patient spider pooping out a web, the novelist writing chapter 7 - all three involve a similar creation, the making of a continuous, connected thread. A story is a story because it is connected -- it's not just a collection of random incidents, characters, sentences. In fact, in the absence of a story teller, tell human beings three things, and we'll fill in the blanks ourselves. Random neural firings in the sleeping brain are woven together into dreams as we try to "make sense" of the elements -- to spin them into a continuity. Show us a field of stars, we'll see patterns. So. What I'm leading to is that a story is called a yarn *not* because women were making yarn as they told stories -- but because one is a metaphor for the other. If they sat around telling stories while cooking, we wouldn't call a story a "soup."

: : Never heard of "currying favour" with your fellow posters? The post about spinning yarn and spinning "a yarn" is correct IMO. You are being too modern and metaphorical in your wanderings/wonderings. Spinning was often a group activity for women and not only is yarn the product it is also a replacement for "skein" as in a full length. To 'spin a yarn' is an old expression with an origin in a physical environment which also had very appropriate metaphorical nuances and endured for that reason.

: I'd be inclined to agree with you if spinning (in groups, yet) were the only, or the most obvious, or most common place tales were told. But human beings tell tales everywhere, whenever two or more people gather. Men, women, children. While eating, working, resting, around the campfire ... any time or place.
: It is logical that a tale can be called a yarn, since it is crafted the same way yarn is: it is "woven" from "threads" etc. It does not follow, and is not logical, however, to reverse the process ("when do people tell stories?" "When they're spinning yarn!" "Let's call a story a yarn, then.")
: See the difference?

From "yarn," noun, in the Oxford Engl. Dict., 1st ed.:

'To spin a yarn' (fig., orig. Naut. slang), to tell a story (usually a long one); also, 'to pitch a tale'. Hence 'yarn' = a (long) story or tale: sometimes implying one of a marvellous or incredible kind; also, a mere tale, colloq.

(The OED's definitions for "yarn" include "one of the threads of which a strand of rope is composed . . . or these threads collectively.")

So "spin a yarn/tale" apparently started with men--sailors--who made rope or at least were familiar with its manufacture, not with women who made fiber for fabric.