Dawn Reader

Dawn Reader
from Open Door Coffee Co.; Hudson, OH; Oct. 26, 2016

Saturday, May 23, 2015

The Spur of the Moment

my cowboy spur
I still have an authentic old cowboy spur that my older brother gave me years ago when I was fully in the thrall of the tale of Billy the Kid, a thrall whose commands I've chronicled here before, but I'll just say that they involved everything from writing and producing and directing a middle school play (a musical!) about him, collecting like a fanatic, reading everything, visiting the scenes of his key shootouts in New Mexico, his grave site. I even gave an hour-long talk about him at Western Reserve Academy back in, oh, 1980 or 81.

I've since cooled off.

my hero Lash LaRue
But that Kid-mania was connected directly to my Oklahoma boyhood passion for cowboys. I read little biographies about Wild Bill Hickock and Buffalo Bill; I watched all those TV shows--and there were many of them in the 1950s (Wild Bill Hickock; Gunsmoke; Have Gun, Will Travel; The Range Rider; The Cisco Kid; Bonanza; and on and on). I watched all those B-Westerns on TV, too--with Whip Wilson and Lash LaRue and the Three Mesquiteers and Johnny Mack Brown and Hoot Gibson. I even watched those singers, Roy Rogers and Gene Autry, though I was never too crazy about them. (Why sing when you can ride and shoot?) I dressed up like a cowboy, ran around the neighborhood with a cap gun, dreamed of riding the range, loved our family trips from Oklahoma to Oregon because they traversed terrain I'd seen on the TV shows--and in my imagination.

Thus ... the spur from my brother.

This is kind of a long way to get to something that happened yesterday. Joyce asked me if I knew the source of the phrase the spur of the moment. I didn't. I looked it up. Now I do.

The OED traces the word spur (meaning the device you see above) back to the eighth century. By the Middle Ages, it had acquired what the OED calls a "generalized sense." Sir Walter Scott, it seems (in Kenilworth, 1821), even used it to mean one who wears spurs.

My Shakespeare concordance reveals that the Bard used spur many times--both literally and figuratively--in the sonnets, the plays (from the famous--Romeo and Juliet--to the less so--Timon of Athens).

The OED traces the spur of the moment back to 1801, and its use is obvious, isn't it? Something in the immediate present (the moment) is urging us to (spurring us) to do something.

As my wife, Joyce, pointed out to me yesterday, when most of us now speak the phrase, we tend to emphasize it like this: "I decided to go on the spur of the moment." And we tend to use it as a synonym for impulsively.

But--given its original meaning--maybe we should be saying "I decided to go on the spur of the moment"--indicating that something about that particular moment urged us to act.

Ain't gonna happen.

Language and usage do not always (or even often?) conform to sense or obey its dictates. With language, we're more, you know, kind of spur-of-the-moment critters.

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