Once, back in my football playing days, on defense for the Wildcats, I tried to “clothesline” the quarterback for the Spartans.
Flinging my fist sidearm at his general face and neck area didn’t slow him down at all; in fact he dashed for pretty good yardage. I, however, broke a couple of bones in my hand off his helmet.
I continued to play out the half. I even tackled a guy, but that made my broken hand hurt so much I decided to do no more tackling. That was it for me. Someone took me to the hospital at half-time, and I got a cast put on.
That teenage memory came back in force recently, when for the first time ever I came across the phrase “to make a good fist of it.” I like to think there are not many phrases I haven’t come across, so it struck me, and my first thought was how hard it had been, all those weeks with a broken bone in my hand, to make a fist. I could curl my fingers in a fist-shape cage, but to actually squeeze them into a fist was impossible, not to mention painful, for a long time.
I came across this phrase in reference to the recent government committee charged with creating legislation to legalize marijuana — the Cannabis Act, or Bill C-45 (coming up for debate in Parliament next week, by the way). I took the phrase “to make a good fist of it” to mean, basically, doing the best you can with the available resources.
“After taking input from pot activists, law enforcement, the medical community, etc, the committee made a good fist of it, and came up with proposed legislation that didn’t seem to upset anyone overly much.”
“To make a good fist of it” is a British phrase, and in fact is used to mean just “do a good job.” “She made a good fist of organizing the fundraiser, despite her lack of support.”
So “fist” does join those other great phrases connected with body parts that we’re more familiar with: “to make a clean breast of it,” or “put your best foot forward.”
By themselves, these phrases make no sense, but there’s always some deep rooted metaphor that gives them life.
For example: “The achilles heel is a real achilles heel for an athlete.” Meaning, on one hand, the largest tendon in the body that stretches from the bones of the heel to the calf muscles, and on the other hand a metaphor for a weakness in spite of overall strength, which can lead to downfall.
This comes, of course, from the hero Achilles, who was partly immortal and mostly invulnerable, except for that one little spot above his right heel, that his enemy Paris shot with an arrow, and that was the end of Achilles. But Achilles lives on in the name of our tendons, and our use of his name for a metaphor defining the point of weakness. Fascinating stuff, innit?
“To make a good fist of it is a phrase used quite a bit in Britain or Australia, but not so much in North America. But in fact, it is a phrase that is American in origin, now obsolete there, and some say it comes from card playing (“fist” also meant a “hand” of cards back in the day). Though there is some debate that the phrase might be derived from Scots English — “ficht”/”feicht”/”fecht,” which means fight. “To make a good fight of it.”
But enough of this. Your challenge is to slip the phrase into your conversation sometime this weekend. Let me know how it works out.
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By the way, a “clothesline” in football is an illegal tackle in which a player extends his arm and tackles a player by the neck. These tackles are extremely dangerous and players are automatically ejected if they clothesline another player (and will often be suspended).
So I guess I got my just deserts, back then when I was 17.
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And in case you were wondering, the Wildcats went on to win that game without me.