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shameless pleading

Parting shot / Parthian shot

A stand-in that fills the bill.

Dear Word Detective:  In many a novel I’ve read of people delivering a “parting shot” in the form of “a threat, insult, condemnation, sarcastic retort, or the like, uttered upon leaving.”   Imagine my surprise when I recently started reading the Sherlock Holmes novels for the first time (rather than watching a movie) and found the famous detective firing a “Parthian shot” instead! (“With which Parthian shot he walked away, leaving the two rivals open-mouthed behind him.” — A Study in Scarlet)  I immediately consulted with my trusty 1960s Watson — er, Webster — where I found the second phrase explained.  Apparently, the ancient Parthian archers were famous for a particular horseback maneuver in which they feigned a retreat, then fired backward at the pursuing enemy.  As a longtime reader of your columns, I smelled folk etymology right away.  Obviously, “parting shot” had to be a corruption of “Parthian shot,” right? But when I later looked up the matter on the Internet, I became doubtful. It seems that the chronological order of the appearance of the two phrases is not quite clear.  But since my sources are by no means reliable (Wikipedia, for one), I turn to you for enlightenment.  Surely you, the original Word Detective, could outwit even the great Holmes any time when it comes to word origins. So for your capacity, this small puzzle can be nothing more than elementary.  Right? — Holger Maertens, Germany.

Gosh, I love it when people write my column for me.  I don’t suppose I could get away with simply saying “Yes” at this point, could I?  By the way, Sherlock Holmes in print beats the best movie (or TV) versions by a mile.

With the game well afoot through your detailed exposition, I need only note that the Parthians were the residents of Parthia, an ancient kingdom in what is now Iran, and Parthian horsemen really were famed for their “Parthian shot” fired while turning to retreat.  “Parthian shot” has been used in a figurative sense to mean “a final insult or point of argument made as one is leaving” since the mid-19th century.

“Parting shot,” meaning the same thing and based on the sense of “parting” as a noun meaning “the action of leaving,” also dates to the mid-19th century.  The underlying sense of “a last remark on your way out the door” is older, however, as “parting blow” is found as early as the 16th century (“Thus much I must say for a parting blow,” 1592).

What we have here, I suspect, is a very convenient coincidence.  Given the spotty record  of 19th century printed sources, it’s impossible to say with absolute certainty which phrase appeared first, although most authorities assume that “Parthian shot” was the original form.  But even in the 19th century, people who knew who the Parthians were and thus truly understood the reference must have been fairly rare, and as the history of the Middle East became more obscure even among educated English speakers in the West, “parting” stepped up to fill the vacancy.  This was, as you guessed, a classic case of folk etymology, where a more familiar word is substituted for a word in a phrase which is no longer (or never was) understood by its speakers.  Our word “bridegroom,” for instance, was originally “brydguma,” meaning literally “bride-man.”  But as the Old English “guma” (man) faded from the popular vocabulary, the more recent and thus familiar “groom” (meaning “male servant”) was substituted.   The fact that “parting shot” fit  so well with both the sound and the “while leaving” sense of “Parthian shot” made the process unusually seamless.

4 comments to Parting shot / Parthian shot

  • [...] Parting shot / Parthian shot « The Word Detective [...]

  • I know I’m long past the freshness date; I’ve fallen behind. Alas!

    My issue with “Parthian shot” being the original is twofold:

    * Spotty 19th-century bookkeeping aside, “parting shot” appears in print nearly a quarter of a century before “Parthian shot”, and
    * The Parthians’ tactic was not to fire arrows behind them while retreating (in other words, a last salvo before leaving the field); it was to feign retreat so that their enemies would follow them (with their defenses lowered, since a retreating enemy couldn’t possibly attack), then shoot behind them, thus not only wounding their enemy but drawing them closer to the main body of the Parthian army.

    Moreover, people have had nearly two millennia to discuss the Parthians. One would assume that “Parthian shot” would have come up sooner had it actually been used in earnest to describe the situation in question.

    It seems far more likely to me that “parting shot” is the original, some 19th-century Classics major saw the opportunity to make a pun, and the “Parthian” joke was repeated until people were confused.

  • ZZMike

    I came across it today, in “Structures: or Why Things Don’t Fall Down”, by J. E. Gordon, Penguin books, 1978. He was Professor Emeritus at the University of Reading (Materials Science).

    Along the way he introduces us to Odysseus’ bow (with a quotation from the Odyssey (where Penelope tells the suitors that whoever strings the bow and shoots through 12 axes [that's important] can carry her away from her home)). [Important because he'd not only have to string the bow to full strength, but draw and loose 12 arrows.]

    From there it’s off to different kinds of bows and how they’re strung, and how much energy they can store (in Odysseus’ case, lots), and the difference between the regular bow and the compound bow, favored by the Parthians.

    “The Parthian bow was handy enough for the cavalrymen to be able to shoot backwards, as they retreated, at their Roman pursuers; from this we get the phrase “Parthian shot”. (p.83)

    The key, of course, is whether the Romans called the Parthians “Parthians”.

    Has anybody checked the OED?

  • neilsok

    I understood Penelope to mean to shoot through 12 axes WITH A SINGLE ARROW, not 12. The axes were bronze, of course, not steel. Essentially she was saying, “When pigs have wings.”

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