Queering the Strike

by Corey Robin on May 1, 2014

In The Empire of Necessity, Greg Grandin gives us a fascinating history of the phrase “to strike.” Seems like a good story for May Day.

The phrase to strike to refer to a labor stoppage comes from maritime history and is an example of how revolutionary times can redefine a word to mean its exact opposite. Through the seventeenth and much of the eighteenth century, to strike was used as a metaphor for submission, referring to the practice of captured ships dropping, or striking, their sails to their conquerors and of subordinate ships doing the same to salute their superiors. “Now Margaret / must strike her sail,” wrote William Shakespeare in Henry VI, describing an invitation extended by the “Mighty King” of France to Margaret, the weaker Queen of England, to join him at the dinner table “and learn a while to serve / where kings command.” Or as this 1712 account of a British privateer taking a Spanish man-o’war off the coast of Peru put it: “fir’d two shot over her, and then she struck,” and bowed “down to us.” But in 1768, London sailors turned the term inside out. Joining city artisans and tradesmen—weavers, hatters, sawyers, glass-grinders, and coal heavers—in the fight for better wages, they struck their sails and paralyzed the city’s commerce. They “unmanned or otherwise prevented from sailing every ship in the Thames.” From this point forward, strike meant the refusal of submission.

Not unlike how gays and lesbians owned the word “queer.”



MPAVictoria 05.01.14 at 3:23 pm

A fine post for May Day.


MattK 05.01.14 at 6:03 pm

It’s a neat story, but it might be a little too pat.

The OED has examples of strike meaning “to lower or take down a sail” going back to ~1300, and does note that these sense (17a) can indicate a salute or surrender. A related sense (17b) makes the implication of submission a lot stronger when it refers to a flag (17b, 17c) and those are also quite old (~1390). Keep in mind though, that striking the sails doesn’t just symbolize surrender, it actually puts the boat out of use–no sails=no movement

The OED traces the “labour action” sense ( back to this quote:

1769 Ann. Reg. 1768 92 A body of sailors..proceeded..to Sunderland.., and at the cross there read a paper, setting forth their grievances… After this they went on board the several ships in that harbour, and struck (lowered down) their yards, in order to prevent them from proceeding to sea.

which sounds like the same event, but it makes it sound more like the sails were struck to actually keep the boats in port, rather than to indicate the boats were “surrendering” to the workers.

From the other quotes, I get the vague impression that subsequent labour actions were called strikes either by analogy to that event or through a similar “put out of use” sense (like striking the set in a play, striking scaffolding when done building, etc), all of which are older than the labour action sense. It probably doesn’t hurt that “strike” can also mean “to hit” and, apparently, to “cut off”, both of which seem related to the labour action.


gmack 05.01.14 at 6:07 pm

And also, apparently, not so similar to the word “proletariat,” which in Rome referred to the class of people who only reproduced themselves and then was appropriated by workers in the early 19th century for other ends.


dax 05.02.14 at 8:37 am

Revolution! Used to mean (and still does mean in astronomy) a return, while in politics and society it now means a disruption.


TM 05.02.14 at 3:10 pm

In German, the term “strike” in the labor sense was directly loaned from English (I assume) and became “streiken”. The German language also has the term “die Segel streichen” (strike sails) but there is no conscious association between the two.


Philip 05.02.14 at 4:00 pm

MattK, I don’t see Corey as saying the boats were surrendering but that the workets refused to submit to work for low wages. The OED example was in Sunderland, about 275 miles from London, so was a separate incident but could well have been related.


Bloix 05.03.14 at 2:57 am

#2- the OED also tells us that the original expression was to strike work or to strike one’s tools, and also that to strike work also meant simply to stop working, either for lunch or at the end of the work day. For work stoppage, it gives a quote describing some “chairmen” who “struck their poles and proceeded in a mutinous manner to the Guildhall respecting their licenses” – chairmen being men who carried sedan-chairs and their poles being the poles on which the chairs were suspended. So the quote means that they set down their sedan-chairs and stopped working.


john c. halasz 05.03.14 at 3:16 am

Doesn’t “sabotage” come from wooden shoes, (“sabot” in Belgian French)? And wasn’t “Ned Ludd” a folk-loric figure, a village idiot type, who accidentally fell upon and therefore ruined some machinery? Etymology is all fine and good, but sometimes “low” cunning is even better.


John Quiggin 05.03.14 at 3:31 am

“Sabotage” I’m pretty sure this is a spurious folk etymology. Wikipedia is inconclusive, but the original meaning appears to focus on go-slows rather than machine-breaking.

Wikipedia also has an article on Ned Ludd, noting a newspaper story in which he is represented as a real person, living in the late 18th century, who broke frames in a fit of rage. I doubt the veracity of the story, but it seems inconsistent with the ides of a long folkloric existence.


john c. halasz 05.03.14 at 3:57 am


You’re probably underestimating early working-class resistance (and wit). Direct machine-wrecking might not have been common, but undermining the imposition of machinery surely was. Here’s the an entry on the “sabot” etymology:


The invocation of “King Ludd” was surely mocking, regardless of who the “original” character was.

But I’ll leave it to Sandwichman, if he chooses to weigh in on the topic.


Shatterface 05.03.14 at 12:04 pm

‘Radical’ means root vegetable.

Um, don’t know where I’m going with this.

‘Queer’, meaning homosexual, dates back less than a century. I’m not sure what gay people started ‘taking it back (Burroughs?) but it’s original meaning (strange, peculiar, eccentric) never fell into disuse.


MattK 05.03.14 at 4:22 pm

@Phillip and @Bloix,
I was trying to point out that the sailors didn’t really “take back” anything. The Grandin quote implies that to strike initially had some submissive overtones, but, in a turn-about, the underpaid sailors reclaimed the word to make it mean “refusal to submit.” Instead, I think the labour action sense of to strike is just a generalization of the “put out of service” sense and that there wasn’t any deliberate agency behind this semantic shift.

In contrast, my impression is that queer was actively and intentionally embraced by the LGBT community in order to shift it away from being a slur. For example,

“It is an in-your-face kind of thing — that’s what I liked about it,” said Liz Powers, 34 years old, of Queer Nation, a group formed a year ago to combat gaybashing. “Using a word that is so offensive is a way of showing your anger.”

Queer Nation, whose motto is “We’re Here/We’re Queer/Get Used to It,” has chapters in cities across the country….

That article has a few more examples of people saying similar things.


Shatterface 05.03.14 at 9:41 pm

Words and phrases successfully ‘reclaimed’ would include “Big Bang theory” (originally a disparaging term used by Fred Hoyle, an opponent of the theory), “Space Opera” (largely redeemed by Sam Delany, Colin Greenland and Iain M Banks), “anarchy/anarchist” (first used as positives term by Proudhon, I think) and “punk” (a homophobic term).

“Queer” and, even more continuously, “nigger”, depend on who use them and when.


Bloix 05.04.14 at 2:34 am

#12 – I was trying to agree with you.

Grandin, as quoted by Prof Robin, claims without citation that the modern meaning of strike comes from a specific event in 1768, when a sort of general strike occurred in which the sailors struck their ships’ sails to block shipping.

But striking sails would not block shipping. It takes only minutes to strike and then set sail, and sails are always struck when a ship is at anchor.

The OED cite that MikeK quotes is not the striking of sails – the traditional sign of submission – but the striking of yards (or yardarms), the heavy horizontal spars from which the sails hang. Striking yards – bringing them down on deck – is the work of several hours and has nothing to do with symbolism – it literally disables the ship.

The OED’s first cited usage that means work stoppage and not the literal downing of sails, yards, etc. is indeed to 1768 – but it’s in reference to hatters, not sailors: “This day the hatters struck, and refused to work until their wages are raised.”

And another reference to hatters, from The Universal Magazine of February 1770 (found using google books): “at all shops they came to in their way of business, they obliged the men to strike, in order to have their wages raised.”

A London council (local government) website claims that the word strike does indeed originate from the nautical usage in 1768, but from the actions of dockworkers (“coal heavers”) who were trying to paralyze river traffic, not from the acts of sailors:

“Matters came to a head in 1768 when food shortages led to unrest and riots throughout London… Indignant at the lack of work and pay, the heavers boarded the coal ships at Wapping and, scaling the rigging, removed or ‘struck’ the top masts, so rendering the craft unsailable. The phrase ‘to strike’ entered the language. Meanwhile, ashore, things were turning nasty.”


Here, what is said to have been struck is topmasts, which seems unlikely, as doing so required a companion vessel with a special crane (a “shear hulk”).

Unfortunately, the word “strike” is so common and has so many other meanings that it’s not practical to search it on google books for the years before 1768.

It’s tantalizing – I can’t find any evidence of “strike” before 1768, but the first usage that I can find that clearly means a work stoppage has nothing to do with sailors.


MattK 05.05.14 at 6:13 pm


Thanks (but I’m glad I misunderstood because your last comment was very interesting). I’d strike my comment to your superior etymological and nautical knowledge


Bloix 05.05.14 at 6:55 pm

My Napoleonic-era nautical knowledge comes from my obsessive readings of the Patrick O’Brian novels.

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