Straits and straights
The Turkish Straits, looking from Europe to Asia
Straightlaced or straitlaced? Straightjacket or straitjacket? Bass Straight or Bass Strait? These words are increasingly being confused, even in reputable newspapers. In one way, this is a good thing: it shows we have completely forgotten a particularly vicious fashion in women’s clothing. On the other hand, it’s depressing. But it really is quite simple to remember the difference – and if you can remember the origin of the words, you should never have a problem.
A strait means a narrowing – and the most common meaning is a narrow body of water that connects two larger ones. In Australia, we have Bass Strait between the Pacific and Indian oceans (rather than between the mainland and Tasmania). Torres Strait is to our north; those in Europe will know the Straits of Messina, while ones of the the oldest known straits of all – the narrow stretch of water between Europe and Asia – is known prosaically today as the Turkish Straits but was originally the Hellespont and later the Dardanelles. If you are in dire straits, you are in very rough water, as straits frequently are.
The word strait expanded into a prefix in the Victorian era. Women tried to narrow their waists (and usually damaged their health) by using squeezing themselves into ultra-tight corsets, a practice known as straitlacing (they used the laces to make their waists narrower). From this nineteenth-century underwear, we gained the word straitlaced, meaning prim and proper, and usually lacking a sense of humour. (Think about it: if your waist was cinched so tight you could barely breathe, you probably wouldn’t be a barrel of laughs either).
From around the same time (from the late eighteenth century if you want to be exact), a mental health practice of confining people so that they did not harm themselves or others gave us the item and word straitjacket. Why straitjacket? I guess because it prevents your arms from being held out wide; they are kept narrow
Straitlacing: if you think of the criss-cross pattern of the laces, you’ll never think of it as straightlaced while straitjackets these days, fortunately, are mostly worn by escapologists
Straight, on the other hand, simply means without a bend or curve. While it is true that many unbending people could be described as straitlaced and straight down the line, the use of the two words is coincidental.
Australia’s Gun Barrel Highway: a famously straight road in central Australia, about as far as you can be from both Bass Strait and Torres Strait
If you have detected a slight military theme this month, you are correct: mention of gun barrels and the Dardanelles is in honour of Anzac Day this month, and my grandfather, who made it through the Gallipoli campaign and the entire horror of the Western Front. Lest we forget.
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