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Six of one half a dozen of the other

I deduce that Barney was not too pleased with the wife who, obviously, checked both ‘pies’ out in his etymological dictionary before calling him

Gulf News

It’s important to have a retirement plan, my father used to say. He, no doubt, was speaking from the experience of not really having one when he retired. A man who worked from the age of 17 to 58 in the one job on the Indian Railways, he’d got so used to the routine of railway work that he wasn’t ready, when the time came, to suddenly start counting the hours in a day.

I myself was a young man then only just entering the work force, and the notion of retirement was but a hazy milestone. Now, suddenly, my dad’s words sit perched like roosting birds on my shoulder, reminding me that this is ‘that year’.

It has arrived PDQ, or Pretty Damn Quick, to put it more lucidly. Still, I think I have things under control. I’ve got my metaphorical ‘pen’ and I’m going to use the time to do what I enjoy, which is write.

My prankster mate, Barney, who regular readers have encountered frequently, being one year senior, considers himself a pro already on ‘matters retirement’ and has taken it upon himself to guide me through these ‘latter-day portals’.

In this connection, Barney advised that I buy a collection of dictionaries. Dictionaries? Not ordinary ones, he assures me, but ones that specialise in etymology.


My response must have appeared attired in a cloud of doubt, for he pressed on, “You’ll find plenty to write about, Kev. And pass on to your readers, too.”

“Give me one good example,” I remember telling him.

“Haywire,” he replied.

Now, everyone knows what haywire is. It’s, of course, another word for confusion or disarray. All of us, at some time in our lives, especially our working lives, have found things going ‘haywire’.

“But don’t you really want to know where the word has its origin?” Barney wants to know. “Or, do you know already?” he enquires, half sarcastically, knowing that I haven’t the foggiest.

So, without waiting for my reply, he proceeds to inform me that ‘haywire’ emerged…not from some manuscript-strewn writing desk of some essayist such as Francis Bacon, Charles Lamb or Virginia Woolf, whose thoughts raced simply too fast for the pen or their filing ability, resulting in a desk of scattered thoughts awaiting the arrival of a personal secretary, or what used to be called back then an ‘amanuensis’.


According to Barney, citing his etymological source, haywire emerged from the fields of the humble peasant who farmed his land in the 1800s and, when the season was right, collected the hay in gigantic bales and tied these bales up with a good strong piece of wire. This wire, of course, held the hay together.

However, if by chance an accident occurred, as apparently was the case on several occasions, and the wire snapped, that resulted in bringing the entire bale of hay undone, and if there was a good strong wind blowing at the time, it could waft the strands of straw in every which direction ... sending everything, in other words, haywire.

I am impressed and, as always, grateful to learn something new.

It is at this time in our conversation, however, that Barney’s phone rings. It is his wife calling from home. Naturally, I can only hear Barney’s side of the conversation but it becomes apparent that they are discussing food. Pies, in particular.

“Oh, I don’t know, I’m not particular,” Barney tells her, “cottage pie, shepherd’s pie, all the same thing.”

He listens for a decent length of time then puts the phone away with a sigh.

“Everything all right?” I ask. “Yeah,” he says, disinterestedly.

I try to engage him further on the subject, but he is elusive. It’s when I return home that I delve online and discover that ‘cottage pie’ and ‘shepherd’s pie’ are technically not the same, etymologically. I also deduce that Barney was not too pleased with the wife who, obviously, checked both ‘pies’ out in his etymological dictionary before calling him.

Barney simply hates being shown up.

Kevin Martin is a journalist based in Sydney, Australia.