Glossary: This thought struck me . . .

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'I've never been up this early before,' I thought the other day, blearily shaving as I listened to Norman Lamont not regretting regretting nothing. I twigged about 20 minutes later, when the Today programme still hadn't materialised. This was the sound of a strike, BBC members of the NUJ and Bectu having gone on strike over pay and conditions, those golden oldies of the news bulletins.

There was a time when I could have written 'had struck' there - the usage was more widespread in the past and strike could even be used transitively and intransitively, though more often across the Atlantic than here - '400 men struck the King Lumber Company this morning' is not a phrase that rings quite true to British ears.

In fact, in America the word could also be an adjective - you could have 'struck companies' and 'struck products', which suggests something cowed, still smarting from the blow. In Britain our allusions are more costive; a strike-bound factory hints at industrial constipation1 rather than fists and aggression.

You can talk of a company 'stricken by industrial action', but there's no obvious connection to the verb there and 'stricken' itself has long been more medical than military. Industrial unrest was, after all, the British disease.

Use 'struck' today and you will, more often than not, be talking about violence - 'British forces struck at the heart of Baghdad'; 'terrorists struck at gas installations', 'the rapist struck again yesterday'.

Indeed, it was one of the cleverer calculations of Conservative ideologues in the Eighties to emphasise the pun which, as far as I can tell, exists only in English. (Continental versions are often directly borrowed from English, as in the Polish strajk, the German streik and the Swedish strejk, none of which conveys the same double meaning, and the French faire la greve derives from La Place de la Greve, a Parisian square in which unemployed labourers traditionally gathered to look for work.)

I'm sure I remember Mrs Thatcher or one of her epigones declaring that the miners were 'striking at the heart of our democracy' or some such formulation. Strikes were often 'wildcat' or 'lightning' - that is untamed and unamenable2 to reason. Would any sane person negotiate with an animal or a thunderbolt? (It isn't widely known, incidentally, that President Clinton's controversial 'three strikes and you're out' policy to combat crime is simply an adaptation of Conservative industrial strategy of the early Eighties: 'One strike and you're out'.)

The military senses now inescapably colour the industrial ones, even though the latter came first. Eighteen-ten is the earliest citation offered by the Oxford English Dictionary for a 'concerted cessation of work by a body of workers', while it is 1943 before its sense as a sudden attack finds expression in print.

Obviously, strike has a much more ancient sense as a blow or assault; to strike while the iron is hot is not simply to hit something, but to hit it with unhesitating purpose. But it is the technology of highly mobile warfare that gives 'strike' its specific military sense, that of forces attacking swiftly and then retreating out of range again.

To be fair, the militarisation of the phrase wasn't entirely a one- sided affair - there were undoubtedly some in the trade union movement who saw the flying pickets as an elite commando force in the continuing struggle. And there are still Chelsea Pensioners of the class war who recall past campaigns - Grunwick, Orgreave, Wapping - with the teary emotion of an old soldier.

But most unionists seemed to realise that whatever you gained in rallying the troops for battle you were likely to lose in the reporting of the fight. Instead they offered that timeless hostage to fortune, 'industrial action' - the phrase that launched a thousand quips - or 'dispute', a rather bloodless term which didn't much suit anyone.

Where exactly strike did come from is more difficult to establish. In its earliest uses it sometimes appears as 'a strike of work', which suggests that it may have something to do with with usages such as 'struck off' and 'strike that from the minutes', in which the word has the sense of cancellation or withdrawal. Partridge also notes that 'to strike' meant to touch someone for money or a loan, a meaning that survived until the late 19th century.

Whatever its origins, the association of strike with sudden, decisive action almost certainly helped to disseminate the word. The irony3 is that it later also provided a means to smear the practice.

1 From the Latin constipare, to press together, to pack firm.

2 From the French amener, to lead, to bring to, in turn from the Latin minare, to threaten, thus leading cattle with shouts.

3 From the Greek eironeia, pretended ignorance. Eiron, a dissembler.