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shameless pleading

Strait jacket

Comfortably numb.

Dear Word Detective: After finding your superb explanation of “manor born” versus “manner born,” I wish to inquire about the origins of “straight jacket” vs. “strait jacket.” I suspect the latter is the original usage, but I cannot find anything definitive concerning this. — George Hancock.

Good question. For the benefit of folks who missed my explanation of “to the [manner/manor] born” a few years ago, here’s a brief recap: meaning “accustomed by birth or upbringing to a certain ‘manner’ — attitudes, methods or practices,” the phrase comes from Shakespeare, specifically the first act of Hamlet. The dour Dane, commenting on the drunken atmosphere at Elsinore castle, remarks “But to my mind, though I am native here / And to the manner born, it is a custom / More honour’d in the breach than the observance.” By this he meant, basically, “I grew up with drunks, everybody here drinks, so it doesn’t bother me.” The phrase “to the manner born” has long been used in this “way we do things” sense, as well as to mean “naturally suited to something” (“John F. Kennedy was to the manner born. Nothing became him so much as the White House,” 1963).

In the 19th century the variant “to the manor born” first appeared, meaning “born into or suited to an upper-class social position” (“Not unequivocally to the manor born, he allied himself by marriage … and personal preference with the first families of Virginia,” 1962). It’s not clear whether the substitution of “manor” for “manner” resulted from a misunderstanding or a deliberate pun, but “manor” is now more common, which is too bad. “To the manner born” and “to the manor born” differ substantially in meaning.

Meanwhile, back at your actual question, the word is definitely “straitjacket,” defined by Merriam-Webster.com as “a jacket that has long arms which can be tied together behind someone’s back and that is used to control the movements of a violent prisoner or patient.” The term first appeared in print around 1814 (although the British equivalent “strait waistcoat” dates to 1753). Straitjackets are designed to tightly restrict a person’s movement, and thus “straitjacket” is also used figuratively to mean anything that restricts action, thought or expression (e.g., “the intellectual straitjacket of political orthodoxy”).

“Strait” is an adjective, noun and adverb derived from the Latin “strictus,” meaning “tightly bound” (also the source of “strict”). As an adjective, it means “narrow or tight” (thus “straitjacket,” a very tight jacket) or “strict, rigorous.” As an adverb, it’s used to mean “strictly” or “tightly,” as in “straitlaced,” tightly bound to tradition (originally, tightly laced into a corset).

As a noun, a “strait” is a tight or very narrow place, either literally (as in the Strait of Malacca, the narrow 500 mile stretch of ocean between Sumatra and the Malay Peninsula) or figuratively in a variety of contexts. To follow a conventional and dutiful path in life is to be “on the strait and narrow” (a phrase taken from the Bible and now more commonly rendered “straight and narrow”). And if you wander off that path into a life of debauchery, you’re likely to eventually find yourself “in dire straits,” between a rock and a hard place, with no good choices available.

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