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straitjackets

October 18, 2012

In John O’Farrell’s enjoyable comic novel, The Man Who Forgot His Wife, I read the following sentence (said by rude schoolkid asking why teacher was absent): ‘Are you having a lobotomy sir? Were you being fitted for a straightjacket?’

I’ve seen this error a lot. It should of course be straitjacket. The word strait means tight or narrow. It’s not much used now but we still see it in the expression straitened circumstances; and also the straits of Gibraltar. The English translation of Andre Gide’s novel La Porte Etroite is called Strait is the Gate.

Straightjacket is an understandable error, replacing a little-used word with a commonly-used homophone, and it does also make a sort of sense. Straitjackets keep your arms tight to your sides, hence the original name, but in doing so they also force you to keep them straight, or straight-ish. I still think we should try and get it right, though. 

My review of John O’Farrell’s book will be in the Independent on Sunday on 4th November.

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