WORD IN THE HAND: HEIST
How hoist blew up into heist, all thanks to an old French fart
A column to satisfy your inner grammar nerd
If you struggle to keep up with Snapchat, try swimming abreast of the changing tides of language. Many of the words we now take for granted once meant something completely different.
I have no doubt that since the beginning of time word nerds have complained about the transitioning of words, just as some do today about the verbing of “transition”.
One word that has undergone an interesting transition is “heist”, which in these parts is generally accompanied by the words “cash”, “in” and “transit”. A century ago, there was no such thing as a heist. That’s not to say that people did not steal from other people; they just called it by other names, like “theft”.
What they did have in the 1930s was the word “hoist”, which at a pinch was put to work as a slang substitute for “robbery”. Hoist was a natural choice for this job, coming as it did from the verb “to lift”.How hoist became heist is explained by etymologists as an accident of pronunciation. Perhaps thieves did not have getaway cars in those days and were limited in what they could carry. It would make sense, in such circumstances, to shove small additional items in one’s mouth, as I do with my car keys when laden with grocery bags. If you have a bar of gold clenched between your teeth it is difficult to say “hoist” clearly. Try it with something similar, like a stapler, and you’ll hear what happens. “Hoist” comes out as “heist”.
So that’s how it happened. It had not yet happened in 1605, however, which is when William Shakespeare finished writing about the young Dane who could not make up his mind. There is a scene in Hamlet when the prince tells his mother he is going to trick his friends Rosencrantz and Guildenstern so that the imagined evil plot against him backfires.
Hamlet says it will be great fun “to have the engineer hoist with his own petar”.
It is fairly clear that he does not mean the sort of engineer who builds theatres and football stadiums; rather he refers to the wily type of person who engineers plots to harm innocent Danish depressives.The rest of the phrase is not as clear. I must confess that for years I thought a “petar” was a rope of some sort, and that “hoist with his own petar” meant to be hanged by one’s own noose.
While this is indeed the meaning of the phrase, a petar, more commonly spelt “petard”, was in fact a small bomb, kind of like the ones used in cash-in-transit heists.
“Hoist” meant “lift” in Shakespeare’s day, just as it still does today, so “hoist with his own petar(d)” meant to be blown up with his own bomb.
There are literal examples of this. Those who use explosive devices to commit crimes are notorious for getting themselves hurt in the process. (Incidentally, I have heard people misquote this idiom as “hoist with his own retard”, which in some ways retains the meaning of the original but in others is of course entirely unacceptable.)
Like heist, petard has been on a circuitous journey. In the 1500s it was a word used by the French (with an accent on the “e”) to describe exactly the sort of bomb Hamlet had in metaphorical mind when he hoped to blow the smiles off R and G’s duplicitous faces.Go back a bit, however, and you find petard’s father, “peter” (with an accent on the first “e”), which meant “to break wind”. Peter’s parent was the Old French “pet” – a fart.
The connection between bombs and flatulence is not a stretch, but there’s a second explosion here that may be unexpected. The word “feisty”, often used to describe women who speak their minds, comes from the same family. According to the Online Etymology Dictionary, petard and feisty were conceived in the same bed but were blown in different directions as they grew up.
Petards are largely out of fashion these days. Feistiness is all over the place. You could call it a word-in-transit heist.