Better the battering of smiths and lonely bakers than a beating ...

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A WORD IN THE HAND: BATTERY

Better the battering of smiths and lonely bakers than a beating of old

A column to satisfy your inner grammar nerd

Deputy features editor: Sunday Times
Image: Artur Rutkowski on Unsplash

When someone says “battery”, these days, the usual assumption is that they’re talking about the cylinder in your torch that runs out of juice just as load-shedding begins, or the same thing in your digital voice recorder that fails just as you’re about to get an extraordinary quote from the president of Tasmania about his pet devils, which no one will believe unless you have proof.

There is also a somewhat contested theory that mobile networks are sometimes interrupted due to a tiring-out of the batteries that allegedly keep cellphone masts firing during blackouts.

That meaning of battery – a cell delivering energy – is relatively recent. According to the Online Etymology Dictionary, only in 1748 did clever Ben Franklin attach the word “battery” to an electrical knickknack. 

There’s no clear reason Ben chose this word. Etymologists think it was a nod to the military use of battery. From about 1550, a battery was the collective name of an artillery unit that sent off charges – i.e. bullets fired by gunpowder – to scare or harm the enemy.

Before that, says the OED, battery referred to the forging of metal implements by a blacksmith, or a silversmith, or bronzesmith, or whatever smith happened to be associated with a hard substance that was battered into shape after being made soft and squidgy in a hot fire.

Which brings us to “batter”, a much older and more nefarious word. 

Beating eggs and flour to make batter for delicious edibles is vastly different from beating a person senseless.

Right now, accountants and editors who have become bakers due to isolation regulations are stirring bowls of batter which be will be transformed by the application of heat into artful crumpets or pancakes or muffins or breads, pictures of which will be posted on Instagram before said baked goods are consumed by anyone lucky enough to be locked down with the batter-maker.

This was not, however, the original meaning of batter. 

The verb “to batter” – which has nothing to do with coating fronds of parsley in tempura and frying them in hot oil until crispy – comes from the Old French batre, meaning “to knock, strike, thrash or beat repeatedly, rapidly, and violently”.

From this root came the second meaning of battery, which was used colloquially and then legally to refer to domestic abuse (meaning predominantly the beating of women by men) from the 1960s. 

Beating eggs and flour to make batter for delicious edibles is vastly different from beating a person senseless. The physical action is not dissimilar, however, so you can see how batter became batter.

I have heard that people are running short of batteries, and this situation might worsen when Eskom reintroduces load-shedding. Buy batteries by all means, but let us endeavour to do all we can to reduce the other kind of battery.

On a happier note, a batter is also a person who hits a red leather ball across a field with a bat made from the wood of a willow tree. 

One day perhaps we will watch live cricket again. That’s the only kind of battery we should be prepared to countenance.

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