as a butcher picks up skewers

SuprunP

Senior Member
Ukrainian & Russian
He picked up a fragment of cheese by pecking upon it with his knife, as a butcher picks up skewers.
(T. Hardy; Far from the Madding Crowd)

I'm not sure I follow the logic of this sentence.

Should it by any chance be 'as a butcher picks up with skewers', thus likening the knife to skewers?

Thanks.
 
  • Loob

    Senior Member
    English UK
    Hi Suprun

    I think that "skewers" here means "small left-over pieces of meat". Dickens uses the term again in Our Mutual Friend:

    'If you were treated as you ought to be,' said Miss Wren, 'you'd be fed upon the skewers of cats' meat;—only the skewers, after the cats had had the meat. As it is, go to bed.'

    I don't think we'd use it that way in today's English (or maybe butchers would!:))

    _________

    EDIT: Oops:eek:. TT gives the correct explanation for the Dickens quote below.
     
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    Loob

    Senior Member
    English UK
    I'm not surprised your dictionaries don't have it, Suprun - the [big] OED doesn't have it either:).

    The OED does, however, have this citation for "skewer-pieces":
    1867 W. H. Smyth Sailor's Word-bk. 629 The meat being then divided into messes, the remnants are cut into small pieces termed skewer-pieces.

    Perhaps Dickens' "skewers" is an abbreviated form of "skewer-pieces"? Next time I go to the butcher's I'll ask!
     

    Thomas Tompion

    Senior Member
    English - England
    I'm interested in Loob's ingenious explanation here.

    Johnson's dictionary (1755, ie. well before Hardy) gives Ske'wer.[Skere, Danish.] A wooden or iron pin. Used to keep meat in form. The quotations, from Dryden, King, and Swift, all have that meaning.

    Dickens in other places uses the word in this familiar sense: eg.
    Allowing that, of these sixty-two thousand seven hundred and forty-eight skewers, the odd two thousand seven hundred and forty-eight were accidentally devoured with the meat, by the most voracious of the animals supplied, it followed that sixty thousand skewers per day, or the enormous number of twenty-one millions nine hundred thousand skewers annually, were wasted in the kennels and dustholes of London; which, if collected and warehoused, would in ten years' time afford a mass of timber more than sufficient for the construction of a first-rate vessel of war for the use of her Majesty's navy, to be called "The Royal Skewer," and to become under that name the terror of all the enemies of this island. The First Meeting of Mudfog

    It's clear that these skewers are wooden (ships are to be made from them, and they may be eaten by mistake by the dogs), and to hold small pieces of meat for animals, a sense found elsewhere in Dickens, as in Loob's example from Our Mutual Friend.

    Look at Loob's example:

    I think that "skewers" here means "small left-over pieces of meat". Dickens uses the term again in Our Mutual Friend:

    'If you were treated as you ought to be,' said Miss Wren, 'you'd be fed upon the skewers of cats' meat;—only the skewers, after the cats had had the meat. As it is, go to bed.'
    Miss Wren tells her father that he deserves to be fed on the skewers of cats' meat, but only on the skewers (the wood), after the cats have had the meat. The cats have had the meat, so the skewers can't be meat.

    If, then, we reject Loob's ingenious suggestion, which I do, reluctantly, what can Hardy have meant by as a butcher picks up skewers?

    I suspect that the plural of skewers is important, as is, obviously, the chicken metaphor.

    I think he's evoking descending swoops onto a butcher's slab. At the end of the day butchers picked up wooden skewers lying here and there on their slabs by making repeated dabs with their hands, like a chicken pecking grain, to reverse the image.

    Henery Fray is eating the cheese with his knife like that. I don't think it's a happy image because Henery only has one 'fragment of cheese' and the butchers will be picking up several skewers, but that's by the way.
     
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    SuprunP

    Senior Member
    Ukrainian & Russian
    Thank you Loob and Thomas Tompion.

    I wonder whether at least his contemporaries found his works easy to read?
     
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    suzi br

    Senior Member
    English / England
    Thank you Loob and Thomas Tompion.

    I wonder whether at least contemporaries found his works easy to read?
    Yes, they did, as we still do, mainly because we generally do not care if we don't quite "get" a few words or expressions in the glory of the whole thing!
     

    velisarius

    Senior Member
    British English (Sussex)
    I have the idea that the imagery is just to show the vertical action of the knife. If you imagine a butcher picking up a handful of skewers in his fist, he will jab the pointed ends all together on the butchers slab to make them into a tidy bundle, for re-use. The person in the passage by Hardy then would have grasped the knife with the blade pointing downwards and raising it a couple of inches from the surface he jabbed it down in one light swift movement.

    In other words, t.t.'s idea, but only one movement, to arrange the skewers in a taut bundle.

    I admit though that loob's version would have been much more logical.
     
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