shy (the verb) / shying at shadows

Discuss word origins and meanings.

shy (the verb) / shying at shadows

Post by Ken Greenwald » Tue Dec 07, 2010 7:46 am

I read the following a few months ago. And the ripped-out magazine page containing it happened to be on top of my pile of ripped-out pages (which is not necessarily in chronological order), so I figured, why not?
<2009 “And it becomes increasingly difficult to avoid entertaining the suspicion that there is something explicitly political in the underlying process of Nobelista decision making. I do not think that I am shying at shadows here, either.”—Newsweek, 10 October, page 40> [[Christopher Hitchens on Obama’s Nobel Peace Prize]]
Not being familiar with the phrase SHYING AT SHADOWS, I looked for its definition in every resource I could muster, but it was nowhere to be found. If anyone wants to take a shot at finding it, maybe they’ll have better luck than I did.

I figured a good start in surmising its meaning would be to look up the transitive verb SHY. It was a bad sign that this verb did not appear in the first dictionary I consulted, Merriam-Webster Online. As I checked further, however, it appeared in some dictionaries but not in others.

SHY transitive verb (Chiefly colloquial): To throw (an object) with a swift, sudden movement; to fling, throw, jerk, toss something quickly and at a target; to try to hit something, especially with a ball or stone. <to shy a stone> <boys who delighted in shying stones at her fowls> <He tore the glasses off and shied them at her>. To have a shy at something—is to make an attempt at something; to have a shot at it. (Oxford English Dictionary, Merriam Webster’s Unabridged Dictionary, Random House Webster’s Unabridged Dictionary, Oxford Dictionary of Idioms. Encarta, Allen’s English Phrases)
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The OED says that the verb SHY is of ‘obscure origin’ (a.k.a. origin unknown). However, etymologists William and Mary Morris, the Word Detective’s dad and mom, gave it a try in their MORRIS DICTIONARY OF WORD AND PHRASE ORIGINS:

SHY: The verb to shy in such phrases as ‘he shied a stone at the dog’ probably goes back to a rather cruel sport common in the Middle Ages. Players tied a cock to a stake and took turns throwing stones at him. The best, and most deadly, marksman was the winner. . . This cruel sport was called ‘cockshying’ [[throwing stones at cocks]]. One theory of the origin of this name is that most cocks would not fight until goaded into doing so. Pelting them with stones had the effect of making them less shy. So the adjective and the verb both had the same meaning originally. [[I was doing fine up until the last sentence????]]
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Some transitive verb SHY quotes from the OXFORD ENGLISH DICTIONARY:
<1793 “It was but the other day he thought that every man ought to shy Jack Dawson from their Houses and Lo now he is his dear friend”—Journal (1965) of W. B. Stevens, 26 March, I. page 74>

<1827 “I cannot keep up with the world without shying a letter now and then.”—Journal of Walter Scott, 26 March> [[figurative use]]

<1835 “I wish he hadn't shied the cat at her.”—Jacob Faithful by F. Marryat, xxxiii>

<1857 “He . . . shied the pieces of glass carefully over the wall.”—It is Never too Late to Mend by C. Reade, xv>

<1868 “He would merely shy barbarous words, half-Latin, half-Greek at us.”— Realmah (1876) by A. Helps, page 245>[[figurative use]]

<1874 “We could shy up our caps for a feller.”—Head over Heels by G. Walch, page 74>

<1880 “Her own glass and its contents were shyed to the other end of the room.”—Adam and Eve by Mrs. L. Parr, page 233>

<1882 “Then you bolted from Oxford, and shied up your fellowship.”— Faucit of Balliol by H. C. Merivale, II. ii. ii. page 161> [[figurative use]]

<1886 “I shied the stuff away.”—For Mamie’s Sake by G. Allen, xviii>
What I would make of SHYING AT SHADOWS is that it means something like throwing stones at shadows; fighting, attacking, arguing against, worrying about, getting nervous or spooked over nonexistent problems. Tilting at windmills might not be a bad fit.
<1893 “Men were beginning to walk puss-footed and shy at shadows.” —Scribner’s Magazine, November, page 653> [[the OED’s only quote]]

<1895 “. . . neiher Negley nor Baird where men to shy at shadows.”—Cosmopolitan, Vol. 18, page 732>

<1921 “We shy at shadows, make mountains of molehills, and take counsel of ill-founded fears.”—Herald and Presbyter, Vol.92, 14 December, page 26>

<1966”Shadow Roll — A large sheepskin-type roll worn above horse’s nose and just below eyes. It cuts off horse’s view of track and prevents shying at shadows, pieces of paper and other objects Chicago Tribune, 9 September, page C1>

<1991 “An odd thing the human mind! So capricious, faithless, infinitely shying at shadows.”— Revising Jacob's Room: Virginia Woolf, Women, and Language by K. Flint, page 373>

<1993 “. . . [[many Russian dissident writers]] withdrew publicly from Vereteno [[a society of these writers]] in protest against the spirit now pervading the organization: a Nakanune [[a Russian government organ newspaper]] writer had been invited to this first session, Aleksy Tolstoy [[another Nakanune writer]] to the next. Their secession was no shying at shadows. . .”— Vladimir Nabokov: The Russian Years by Brian Boyd, page 199>

<1999 “. . . has the odour of a bunch of politicians running scared, shying at shadows and terrified of offending the touchiest voter . . .”—Lethbridge Herald (Alberta , Canada), 21 June, page 8>

<2003 “. . . those dice had him shying at shadows and jumping at sighs.”—Crossroads of Twilight by Robert Jordan, page 128>

<2007 “The untutored mind is naïve and softheaded. . . It swallows everything it is told. Hence it is forever shying at shadows, growling at reflections, pursuing will-o'-the-wisps and clinging to phantoms.”— Shadow of the Third Century: A Revaluation of Christianity by A. B. Kuhn, page 204>

<2009 “And it becomes increasingly difficult to avoid entertaining the suspicion that there is something explicitly political in the underlying process of Nobelista decision making. I do not think that I am shying at shadows here, either.”—Newsweek, 10 October, page 40> [[Christopher Hitchens on Obama’s Nobel Peace Prize]
(quotes from archived sources)
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Ken G —December 6, 2010
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Re: shy (the verb) / shying at shadows

Post by russcable » Tue Dec 07, 2010 8:13 am

Why transitive? All the examples work quite well with the intransitive meaning "to start suddenly aside through fright or alarm."
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Re: shy (the verb) / shying at shadows

Post by Erik_Kowal » Tue Dec 07, 2010 8:45 am

Like you, Ken, I had not encountered this expression till very recently -- in fact, not until I read your posting.

A couple of observations, in no particular order:

1) The coconut shy is a traditional fairground entertainment in the UK. The idea is for the paying suckers who fall for this scam to throw balls from a distance of typically 10-15 feet at a cluster of coconuts (one shies at coconuts) perched on concave holders fixed to stakes at a height of 3-4 feet above the ground. If by some fluke you actually succeed in this enterprise you are traditionally rewarded with some item of worthless schlock. (The scam consists in the fact that a coconut usually has a mass of 1 kilogram or more, but the balls you are given to knock them off with weigh only a few tens of grams. The velocity with which you need to launch a ball so that it is capable of dislodging a coconut weighing at least 20 times more than itself is enormous, and exceeds what most humans are capable of. I now know to shy away from such tentertainments :-)

2) When I read the citations, it seemed to me that the expression 'shying at shadows' was being used in three somewhat different senses.

The first sense is evidently roughly equivalent in meaning to 'tilting at windmills', as you remarked (e.g. the Hitchens quote); the second usage apparently means more or less 'freaking out so that one wildly lashes out at something'; and the third sense of reacting with fear to a literal or metaphorical shadow (shying away from something) seems to correspond to what we might nowadays describe as plain old 'freaking out' (i.e. feeling or showing substantial distress or fear regarding something without further physical action).

Sometimes it is not possible to be sure which sense was uppermost in the writer's mind -- for instance, in the 1921 Herald and Presbyter and 2007 Kuhn citations it is unclear to me whether the subjects are merely reacting with fear or also lashing out.

3) Finally, one can shy away from something in the sense of simply avoiding it ("Geoffrey keeps on shying away from doing his homework", "Erik shies away from wasting his money with the shysters that operate coconut shies").
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Re: shy (the verb) / shying at shadows

Post by trolley » Tue Dec 07, 2010 8:54 am

I've never encountered this meaning of the word shy and, at first, wondered why you even gave the saying a second thought. I just took it at face-value and assumed it was related to being "afraid of one's own shadow". I think your definition is spot on, but you could be using the wrong shy. I've often heard of horses shying (getting spooked) easily and did find a couple of quotes that talked about horses "shying from shadows". You have one of them included in your quotes. I have a hard time picturing a horse throwing a rock (even metaphorically)...a shoe?.........maybe.
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Re: shy (the verb) / shying at shadows

Post by Edwin F Ashworth » Tue Dec 07, 2010 1:10 pm

If Erik's advice is heeded, there'll be many carnivals several sideshows shy of a fair.
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Re: shy (the verb) / shying at shadows

Post by Ken Greenwald » Wed Dec 08, 2010 4:47 am

Russ and Phil, I think that both of your comments make sense.

The OED had a verb #1 and a verb #2. Because the phrase of interest was SHYING AT SHADOWS, I locked onto the transitive meaning of verb #2 (which also has an intransitive meaning, as does verb #1) and which struck me as the most likely SHY in question.

Also, there were differences between and within the two verbs, not only in meaning, but whereas verb #2 had an uncertain origin, verb #1 had a definite origin. So, my reasoning was that the verb used in SHYING AT SHADOWS had to be derived from one of the meanings of one or the other of the verbs, with the phrase reflecting that meaning.

But the phrase has never been discussed in any source that I could find, and I certainly couldn’t determine for sure which SHY was first referred to, which would help at least to determine the original and possibly the present meaning.

Looking at the various present meanings of SHY, however, there is certainly the possibility that the phrase SHYING AT SHADOWS evolved from more than one meaning of SHY, and now has several meanings. Erik’s three make sense, but as he commented, it is sometimes difficult to tell which is meant. And as far as the evolution of these various meanings of SHYING AT SHADOWS goes, we will probably never know exactly how that developed over time.
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Ken – December 7, 2010
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Re: shy (the verb) / shying at shadows

Post by Wizard of Oz » Mon Dec 13, 2010 3:39 pm

.. WWs I think you need to look no further than the 1966 quote .. This phrase is very familiar to me and has always been derived from the horse action of shying meaning to rear up or to jump sideways .. I am afraid I can't see Erik's 3 different meanings in the quotes and by my reading, simple as it may be, they all mean the same thing and that is that the person is seeing something that it's not there or is making something a perceived problem from something that is in itself simple .. Just as a horse will often see something as simple as a stick and think it a snake and shy away from it .. Ken I can't see any connection whatsoever with the throwing meaning of shy ..

WoZ in Lyon
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Re: shy (the verb) / shying at shadows

Post by Erik_Kowal » Mon Dec 13, 2010 8:08 pm

WoZ, I think it's possible that because you have been exposed to just one of the senses in which the expression is evidently used (perhaps because it is predominant in the country or region that you live in) your perception of it has been coloured to such an extent that you are unable to perceive the nuances of other usages.
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Re: shy (the verb) / shying at shadows

Post by Edwin F Ashworth » Tue Dec 14, 2010 10:53 am

Such nuances being of course the basis for the technicalities on which shysters put a stop to appropriate sentences.
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Re: shy (the verb) / shying at shadows

Post by Wizard of Oz » Wed Dec 15, 2010 6:45 pm

.. and Erik often those who have no experience of an expression attempt to sound learned by reading nuances into all kinds of meanings that were never intended in the simple, plain beginning .. why is it so difficult to accept what a native user of an expression knows to be the meaning and instead make an attempt to put that person down as being unable to appreciate nuances ??? ..

WoZ in Paris
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Re: shy (the verb) / shying at shadows

Post by Erik_Kowal » Wed Dec 15, 2010 7:36 pm

Heaven forbid that anyone should appear to be 'sounding learned' when interpreting citations from a dictionary.

Because it's obviously so much better to sound like an uneducated moron. ;-)

You know, WoZ, we're just going to have to agree to disagree on this one.
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Re: shy (the verb) / shying at shadows

Post by Wizard of Oz » Fri Dec 17, 2010 5:18 pm

.. Erik you should visit Urban Dictionary more often .. It is the ultimate example of where people hear an expression, are not sure what it means, don't ask, make up their own definition, post it and voila a new meaning for others to cling to ..

WoZ having lunch up the tower
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Re: shy (the verb) / shying at shadows

Post by PhilHunt » Fri Dec 17, 2010 5:37 pm

All this talk of shy and horse made me think of 'horse shy' which I seem to remember from my youth. Looking at a book on horsemanship (1861) it says "A man who pulls his horse's head towards what he expects him to shy at, and uses violence, makes his horse shy. A man who leaves his horse's head entirely loose, lets his horse shy. And a man who turns his horse's head from what he expects him to shy at, prevents his horse from shying". In this paragraph shy seems to have various naunces.
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Re: shy (the verb) / shying at shadows

Post by Erik_Kowal » Sat Dec 18, 2010 6:37 am

WoZ, I resent your implied likening of my interpretations of the term in question to invented definitions in Urban Dictionary. It is perfectly clear from what I wrote that I was drawing inferences from the evidence contained in the citations that Ken supplied, and I said as much. You are free to accept them or disregard them -- your choice. But you're not entitled to imply that I've fabricated a set of new definitions for the term.
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Re: shy (the verb) / shying at shadows

Post by Edwin F Ashworth » Sun Dec 19, 2010 9:34 pm

Urbanish the thought.
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