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WORD OF THE WEEK: corbie-messenger

(n.) a messenger who arrives too late to be of use, or not at all

(n.) a messenger who arrives too late to be of use, or not at all

Have you had a good week? No, neither has anyone else. 

From the leaking of Sir Kim Darroch’s injurious comments about the Trump administration to the escalating tensions in the Strait of Hormuz, the past seven days have been one hell of a ride. And just when things couldn’t get any worse, up popped Boris Johnson to ruin everything further, by so noncommittally blathering his way through a question about the Darroch affair in Tuesday’s Leader’s Debate that he all but guaranteed Sir Kim’s resignation the following morning. All this a full two weeks before he actually becomes Prime Minister, as it appears ever more likely he will. 

There was at least one glimmer of good news this week. After months of fence-straddling, the Labour Party finally tidied up their Brexit policy by agreeing that they would indeed champion a second referendum on any deal passed by the House of Commons—and, in that situation, would campaign for the Remain side. 

With our politics in the state they’re currently in, alas, this policy of overt self-defeatism almost sounds like perfect common sense. 

Given that Labour’s Brexit position is also to reopen and renegotiate a deal with the EU, however, this shift of policy would of course put them in the unenviable position of (A) manufacturing a new withdrawal agreement and then (B) firmly and publicly arguing against it in a referendum. But with our politics in the state they’re currently in, alas, this policy of overt self-defeatism almost sounds like perfect common sense. 

But there is a snag in Jeremy Corbyn and Labour’s sudden light-seeing shift to Remain. Though welcome news for many certainly, it may have come too late for the Labour Party as a whole. Or, at least, may prove too little too late. 

After months of delaying, backtracking, vacillating and, er, straddlebuggery (to coin an unfortunate phrase), many Remain-supporting Labour votes have been tempted to take their votes—or indeed, their memberships—elsewhere, with the Liberal Democrats and Greens seeming to have taken the lion’s share. Could these deserters be tempted back to the Corbyn fold? It remains (no pun intended) to be seen. 

As always, there’s a word for all of this, of course: a corbie-messenger is a messenger who returns too late to be of use. 

Despite the similarity, etymologically there’s no Corbyn in corbie. As Scots and North Country readers will undoubtedly know, a corbie is a raven or crow—a word derived from the birds’ Old French name, corbel. Its association with laggardly message-bearing is a biblical one: according to the Book of Genesis, before he released the dove from the Ark, Noah released a raven, “which went forth to and fro, until the waters were dried up from off the earth.” But while the dove eventually reappeared with an olive leaf in its beak, proving that the waters had indeed abated, the raven never returned. 

It’s this that lies behind the expression corbie-messenger, which first appeared in independent use in English way back in the fifteenth century. It’s remained stranded on the outskirts of the language ever since, all but solely maintained by a handful of regional dialects. 

Oh, wait—this week wasn’t so bad after all

Illustration by @Bread_and_Ink 

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