Last week some space was devoted to the crawling, scratching crab, so that perhaps enlarging on the topic “Crab in Idioms” may not be quite out of place. The plural in the previous sentence is an overstatement, for I have only one idiom in view. The rest is not worthy of mention: no certain meaning and no explanation. But my database is omnivorous and absorbs a lot of rubbish. Bibliographers cannot be choosers.
The topic of this post is the phrase to catch a crab. Those who are active rowers or rowed in the past must have heard it more than once. A century and a half ago, a lively exchange on the origin of this expression entertained the readers of the indispensable Notes and Queries. Especially interesting was a long article by Frank Chance, who started the discussion and whom I try to promote at every opportunity, because it is a shame how few people know his contributions and how seldom they are referred to, especially in comparison to the achievements of his namesake, the baseball player.
The 1876 edition of Webster’s dictionary (the most recent at that time) explained that to catch a crab means “to fall backwards by missing a stroke in rowing.” Obviously, this definition is insufficient (even partly misleading), for catching a crab in rowing refers to the result of a faulty stroke in which the oar is under water too long (that is, when it becomes jammed under water) or misses the water. (However, the part I italicized seems, according to James Murray’s OED, to have been added by the uninitiated; see below.) Additionally, the rower who catches a crab often ends up with the oar getting stuck toward his or her stomach in the hara-kiri (seppuku) position and falls backwards, waving arms and legs. This detail will play some role in the subsequent discussion.
If we start our etymological search with a jammed oar, then the metaphor sounds obvious: the impression is that a malicious crab has seized the blade and won’t let it go. But why just a crab? And where did the idiom originate? It was Frank Chance who noted that “a man, when he has thus fallen backwards, and lies sprawling on the bottom of the boat, with his legs and arms in the air, does bear some likeness to a crab upon its back, but the use of the verb to catch shows that this cannot be the origin of the phrase” (yet he returns to the image later in his publication). I wonder whether he was the first to liken the prostrate man in a boat to a crab and the first to cite the Italian phrase pigliare un granchio (a secco), that is, “to catch a crab on dry ground,” figuratively “to make a blunder,” and to connect it with its English analog. Murray mentioned the Italian phrase but gave no references to Chance (whose opinions he respected).He read Notes and Queries quite regularly and must have been aware of the discussion. Whatever the origin of the idiom, the figurative meaning came after the direct one, as always happens in such cases. From the Italian point of view, catching a crab is a bad thing, and, indeed, seizing a crab on dry ground (a secco) or in the water without precautions should not be recommended. F. Chance wondered under what circumstances the crab came in. Perhaps he made a rather obvious thing look too complicated.
Crabs walk sideways (“crabwise”!), so that the inspiration for the idiom might have come from associating crabs with erratic behavior; such was the hypothesis in the Italian dictionary on whose authority Chance relied. But the same dictionary pointed out that the Italian phrase refers to the situation in which a finger is pinched severely, so that blood shows. Frank Chance concluded: “Most people who have walked upon the sands when the tide is out… have seen crabs lying about, and it has no doubt happened to some of them… to take hold of one of these crabs incautiously, and to get a finger pinched.” It is not clear whether he thought that the English phrase is a borrowing of the Italian one or whether, in his opinion, both languages coined it independently of one another, but he believed that in English the idiom had at one time had a broader meaning and was only later confined to rowing.
Several experienced oarsmen offered their comments on the idiom. Thus, in Cambridge, as it turned out, the reference was to catching the water when it ought to be cleared, while on the Thames, “certainly about London,” the opposite was understood: to catch a crab meant to miss the water in the stroke and fall backwards over the thwarts, probably with the heels in the air. Other correspondents confirmed the latter definition. Since all of them were talking about the things they knew very well, it appears that the idea of missing a stroke did not originate with the uninitiated.
Chance, quite reasonably, retorted that all those niceties neither proved nor disproved his conclusion. Yet his etymology has an easily visible defect: he derived the idiom from a situation that could not have been important to too many people. One would have expected the phrase catch a crab to have originated among fishermen (who were probably pinched by crabs more than once). From them it would have become widely known as professional slang, first, in a community in which fishing for crabs was an important occupation. Later it would have spread to the rest of the population, the way sports metaphors, like bet on the wrong horse, too close to call, down the wire (to stay with the jargon of horse racing), and dozens of others do. Still later it would have been adopted by oarsmen, again as slang and a facetious statement.
The fact that the unlucky person “lies on the bottom of the boat, with his legs and arms in the air” probably contributed to the idiom’s move from fishermen to oarsmen, but the details remain hidden. To repeat what has been said above, the figurative meaning grew out of the direct one: pigliare un granchio still means almost what it must have meant to begin with, that is, “to pinch one’s finger.” Although the reference to the crab is lost, it means “to make a mistake.”
It is rather improbable that exactly the same expression was coined in England. A phrase like to drop the ball, to give a random example, can originate anywhere at any time among those who try to catch the ball and fail, because ball games are universal. But being pinched by a crab is too specific for the same kind of treatment. I suggest that the phrase made its way to English (the written records of the idiom to catch a crab are late, none antedating the last quarter of the eighteenth century), retained its meaning “to make a mistake,” and was appropriated by oarsmen for whatever reason: partly because the oar that was jammed made the impression of being caught by a creature with strong claws, or because of the posture of the person who ended up lying on the bottom of the boat like a crab, or because crabs have in general a bad press, as evidenced by the adjective crabbed, the STD crabs, and perhaps by the noun crabapple. The other languages must have borrowed the phrase from English: fangen eine Krabbe in German, attraper un crabe in French, poimat’ kraba in Russian, and probably elsewhere. Given my reconstruction, one wonders why and where the English heard the Italian phrase and what contributed to its popularity. Some boat race in Venice?
Images: (1) IMG_1377b2S by Phuket@photographer.net, CC BY 2.0 via Flickr. (2) P5060343.JPG by Allen DeWitt, CC BY-SA 2.0 via Flickr (3) “Catching a Crab” by Anthony Volante, CC BY-SA 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons. Featured image: Fishing, nets, crabbing by JamesDeMers, Public Domain via Pixabay.