Double Dutch, wordplay, and striking with deadly intent

Just the other day, I was at my wit’s end wondering what to do with all these bits and pieces of trivia knocking about my noggin like nobody’s business when a wandering friend struck up a conversation in a moment of idle curiosity. “Wonder whether the word ‘isthirikkaya’ has Portuguese roots?”

Now for those of you who did Home Science in the vernacular while at the old alma mater, this is a well-known household term… an iron… an electrical implement or tool… a domestic or commercial or industrial device to smooth clothes with… ergo the lesser known and somewhat archaic term, ‘smoother’.

But the drinking classes who curse his work may have never set their eyes on the infernal machine, much less manipulated one in a worthy cause. And I am not one to resist opportunities to showcase my wit, wisdom, and general modesty.

So here’s what I said… and to really do it justice, you’ve got to try and picture the scene: him, idle and curious; me, at my wit’s end; the struck-up conversation like a player who has momentarily forgotten his place on the stage and is stuck like an actress who misheard her cue.

Ready, dears? Here goes…

Isthrikkaya, Sinhala noun. Etymology Dutch: strikjen (“to smoothe, stroke, rub”) – by way of German verb streichen; originally from the Old High German verb strihhan [Assimilated into the vernacular of Zeilan (Hollander nomenclature for Ceylon), c. 1658-1796, courtesy officials of the Vereenigde Oost-Indische Compagnie].

“Oh, really?” my friend muttered in low disdain, and cleverly managing to work six and a half syllables into his ‘really’.

“Yes, really!” I replied nonchalantly but in high dudgeon, smuggling sarcasm and a rolling-r sound into my ‘yes’.

And yours truly added, for good measure: “So when the Dutch taught the Zeilanese how to strike while the iron was hot, they said ‘isthrikkaya isthrikkaya’.” (Get it?) Which, as you can imagine, never having been within the hallowed precincts of a subeditor’s bullpen or editor’s cockamie pencilled constructions, was double-dutch to him.

But that’s about half my word count used up on pleasant preliminary trivialities, so high time (Old High German ‘lowe teid’) to get down to brass tacks.

Have you noticed, dears, how strikes are abounding these days? Only the other day, a wildcat strike by the dozens (I kid you not) of railway unions crippled the rush-hour transport system for the several hours it took to wrest a pay hike (they call it “rectifying ‘salary anomalies’”) from the transit authorities. Post, ports and airports, and other essential services lie similarly vulnerable to “concentrated cessation of work by a body of employees" (a usage of ‘strike’ attested since 1810, which is derived from a form of the verb meaning “refuse to work to force an employer to meet demands”, attested from as far back as 1768).

I have three theories on possible root (Latin radix) causes, radical me. Strike One: That a strike is a strike is a strike, and trade union action is trade union action. And no more. This kind of strike comes from the notion of “striking” or downing one's tools, or from the time-honoured naval practice of striking (or lowering) a ship’s sails as a symbol of refusal to go to sea (a mid 18th-C. use), which preserves the verb’s original sense of “make level, smooth”.

Strike Two: That this strike is more of a “streak” and a “stroke” – the dissident JVP faction being strong in those departments – and perhaps influenced in the sense of development by the Old Norse cognate striuka. If you’ve seen the dissident JVP up close and personal, you would believe me. Vikings, the lot.
Strike Three: That these strikes are merely the harbingers of an embarrassment of strikes to come… all of which are stealthily setting the stage for a takeover of the national labour force in all divisions by the civilatary (Sri Lankan neologism: “civil” + “military”, c. 2009-2012).

But strike three – and you’re out… which is where I’m ‘striking to’ (pardon my preposition-ended sentence, will you, ye pedantic grammarians?), an older sense of “go forward”. And I’m striking out for safety before anyone thinks to launch the strike that is a “sudden military attack” (a phrase attested since 1942), which hits me between my split infinitives and my dangling participle. Ouch. Try not to picture that!

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