Sometimes you don't realise you've learned a word somehow wrong.
Then someone, or some thing, pulls you up and makes you think about it.
Like.... swashbuckling, for example.
There's a lot of stuff these days about pirates. Kids love pirates.
My understanding of pirates evolved long before Johnny Depp. Pirates for me were Long John Silver and Captain Hook.
So it's a very long time since I first met the word 'swashbuckling'. It must have come in somewhere back then, because I know it well, and like it as well as most people. Swashbuckling pops up whenever pirates are mentioned—for example, Ten of the most swashbuckling Puffin pirates.
I never looked 'swashbuckling'up (I never looked anything up as a kid—my sister and I read voluminously and picked up the meanings of things as we went along). So somehow I developed the idea that 'swashbuckling' was something to do with the pirates' giant buckles on their belts. At the same time, in my mind some of those belts were more like huge sashes (or 'cummerbunds', another word I like).
As a result, I sort of made swashbuckling into sashbuckling. I certainly had no idea what the word actually meant, though I knew it was fiercely piratish.
It was a cartoon that made me think long and hard. Cartoons work like poems, I find. Often they hinge on a single word combined with an image, and it creates an intense cluster of associations and meaning and fun and joy.
This time it was Savage Chickens on September 13th: a chicken with an eye patch is applying for a job, and the interviewer is looking at his CV: 'Hm... I see from your résumé that you've done a lot of swashbuckling'.
It made me laugh. And I started to think about swashbuckling and what it actually was. Had I myself ever done any?
I looked it up. And it's not what I thought at all. Well, it is and it isn't.
It means 'acting in the manner of a swashbuckler'. Ha. What is a swashbuckler?
'A swaggering or daring soldier or adventurer.'
Okay, yes, Swaggering, yes (I won't go into how I've always visualised a swagger, but fortunately we all know what swag is.)
But still—buckling what! And why? And what is a swash?
It seems there is no swash. There is 'to swash', which is to strike something violently. And the 'buckle' is nothing to do with the belt. It's a small, round shield.
A swashbuckler is someone who strikes his opponent's small round shield violently. In battle. Or maybe while boarding his ship.
Or maybe via Twitter.
Swashbucklers are not subtle.
They are all boys.