WORD OF THE WEEK: poacher-turned-gamekeeper (n.)
one who changes their mind, and opts to protect what they once attacked
Things got off to a fine start this week with the publication of Peter Oborne’s editorial last Sunday over on Open Democracy: “I was a strong Brexiteer—now we must swallow our pride and think again.”
Calling out the paralysis that Brexit has wrought upon to our political system, Oborne, the former political editor of the Leave-supporting Telegraph, bravely broke ranks and confessed that now was the time “to take a long deep breath.” And crucially, he admitted that doing so might now entail, “rethinking the Brexit decision altogether.”
Among Remain voters, his piece was met with an uneasy mix of relieved open arms and exasperated eye-rolls. But regardless of its reception, Oborne’s admission that “the Brexit project has gone sour” felt like a turning point.
Within days, LBC’s self-proclaimed “reluctant Leaver” Nick Ferrari was exclaiming live on air that we should “just bloody stay,” and “move on to other things.” Attorney General Geoffrey Cox was caught admitting that when it comes to Brexit, Leave voters may “have underestimated its complexity,” and that ministers were now prepared to “listen” to demands for a second referendum. And way back in March, even Green peer Baroness Jones—who once labelled the EU “an outsized behemoth beyond reform”—was compelled to admit that “if Article 50 was revoked, I would feel relieved.”
But of all the dominos yet to fall, Oborne’s this week feels like the most significant.
With that in mind, for Word of the Week we’re turning to a little-used expression whose origins are rooted in an old English proverb: a poacher-turned-gamekeeper is someone who changes their mind or their stance, and begins protecting or advocating that which they once attacked.
The age-old proverb in question here is one that advises that an old poacher makes the best gamekeeper—the implication being that someone who has the inside knowledge and experience of poaching will be best suited to turn those skills around as a gamekeeper.
In that form, this saying (and indeed the word derived from it) dates back no further than the mid 1800s, but the concept at its root as an ancient one.
The historian Thomas Fuller was advising that “the greatest deer-stealers make the best park-keepers” as far back as 1655, and even Chaucer touched upon his own version in the Canterbury Tales: “A theef of venyson,” he wrote in the fourteenth century, “kan kepe a forest best of any man.”
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