It Depends On What Throes Is It

It Depends on What “Throes” Is

It started when Cheney went on “Larry King Live” last month and said this:

‘ “I think we may well have some kind of presence there over a period of time,” Cheney said. “The level of activity that we see today from a military standpoint, I think, will clearly decline. I think they’re in the last throes, if you will, of the insurgency.” ‘

This is the man who “knew where exactly” Saddam’s alleged weapons of mass destruction were and who was sure Iraqis would deliriously greet the US military as liberators.

Virtually nobody agreed with Cheney. Senator John McCain, when asked if it was the last throes, sighed “No.” Senator Chuck Hagel suggested Cheney was disconnected from reality.

Then there was this exchange at a senate hearing between Sen. Carl Levin and General John Abizaid, the Pentagon’s senior officer in the Gulf:

‘ Sen. Carl Levin, D-Mich.: “General Abizaid, can you give us your assessment of the strength of the insurgency? Is it less strong, more strong, about the same strength as it was six months ago?”

Gen. John Abizaid, top U.S. commander in the Persian Gulf: “In terms of comparison from six months ago, in terms of foreign fighters, I believe there are more foreign fighters coming into Iraq than there were six months ago.

“In terms of the overall strength of the insurgency, I’d say it’s about the same as it was.”

Levin: “So you wouldn’t agree with the statement that it’s in its last throes?”

Abizaid: “I don’t know that I would make any comment about that other than to say there’s a lot of work to be done against the insurgency.” ‘

In other words, a lot to be done and no progress in the past 6 months.

So then Wolf Blitzer at CNN came back to Cheney and asked him again about the last throes.

BLITZER: The commander of the U.S. Military Central Command, Gen. John Abizaid has been testifying on Capitol Hill.

CHENEY: Right.

BLITZER: He says that the insurgency now is at a strength undiminished as it was six months ago, and he says there are actually more foreign fighters in Iraq now than there were six months ago. That doesn’t sound like the last throes.

CHENEY: No, I would disagree. If you look at what the dictionary says about throes, it can still be a violent period — the throes of a revolution. The point would be that the conflict will be intense, but it’s intense because the terrorists understand if we’re successful at accomplishing our objective, standing up a democracy in Iraq, that that’s a huge defeat for them. They’ll do everything they can to stop it. [Cheney then invoked the Battle of the Bulge in December of 1944.]

Cheney contradicts himself here. On the one hand he redefines “throes” as capable of lasting a long time. Then he goes back essentially to predicting that the Iraqi guerrilla war will be over in about six months. Isn’t that the implication of his invoking the Battle of the Bulge?

Then Secretary of Defense Rumsfeld goes on Fox Cable News and says this:

‘ Rumsfeld said: “We’re not going to win against the insurgency. The Iraqi people are going to win against the insurgency. That insurgency could go on for any number of years. Insurgencies tend to go on five, six, eight, 10, 12 years.” ‘

So now not only has there been no progress for six months, not only is there a lot of work to do, but we are not in December, 1944 of WW II at all. We are in 1963 of the Vietnam War, with 12 years to go, and we can’t win. The Iraqi ARVN has to win.

But my real question is whether “throes” can mean what Cheney alleges.

The Oxford English dictionary defines a “throe” as

‘ 1. A violent spasm or pang, such as convulses the body, limbs, or face. Also, a spasm of feeling; a paroxysm; agony of mind; anguish. ‘

That just doesn’t seem to me to be the sort of thing that could last for several years at a time. A spasm has to be over with pretty quickly.

The Bard gives us this: “Their pangs of Loue, with other incident throwes That Natures fragile Vessell doth sustaine.” [SHAKES. Timon V. i. 203] So here a throwe [throe] is a pang, as in a pang of love. (Spelling it without the “w” seems to be a seventeenth century practice that only arose late in Shakespeare’s lifetime; i.e. it is a late innovation).

A lot of early modern writers used “throes” to refer to a mother’s birth pains:

Milton says, “My womb..Prodigious motion felt and rueful throes.” [1667 MILTON P.L. II. 780]

And Pope writes, “Her new-fall’n young..Fruit of her throes.” [1715-20 POPE Iliad XVII. 6]

Defoe has, “Frequent Throws and Pangs of Appetite, that nothing but the Tortures of Death can imitate.” [1719 DE FOE Crusoe (Hotten’s repr.) 408] Again, a pang, as in a pang of appetite. I wouldn’t say a pang of appetite could go on for years ordinarily.

But Cheney didn’t just speak of a “throe.” He said “the last throes, if you will.” Apparently we won’t. But in any case, the last throes are the spasm of a dying body, of the sort that actors find it so difficult to do convincingly. Afficionadoes of classic silly comedy movies will remember when the dying prospector kicks the bucket in “A Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World.” I mean, his foot actually strikes the bucket as he dies. That’s the throes, Dick.

OED says the Scottish spelling of this was deid-thraw. I thought that had an ominous ring to it, sort of like something you’d find in Frank Herbert’s Dune books. “The deid-thraw of Abu Musab.”

Spenser in the Faerie Queene gives, “O man! have mind of that last bitter throw.” (I. x. 41)

I thought this entry rather good: “The agony of . . . outrage transcends the throes of dissolution.” [1833 H. MARTINEAU Tale of Tyne vi. 113 ]

In fact, I’m pretty sure that’s how just about everyone feels about Cheney’s assertion about the throes in Iraq.

Cheney is wrong to mix up two separate usages of “throes.” The “last throes” are the “paraxysm of death,” and imply a quick end. The “throes of revolution” are a different sense of the word.

The OED gives, “When a nation is in the throes of revolution, wild spirits are abroad in the storm.” [1856 FROUDE Hist. Eng. (1858) II. ix. 373]

You can say that again. Also watermelons and dogs rigged up with bombs.

The throes of a revolution is a figurative sense of throes, drawing on its meaning of “convulsion, paroxysm,” and perhaps invoking its archaic connotation of the pangs of childbirth. It just isn’t the same as “the last throes” unless you actually were speaking of “the last throes of the revolution.”

So, I have to reject Cheney’s explanation to Wolf Blitzer of what he meant by the “insurgency” being in “its last throes, if you will.” He wasn’t talking about the throes of revolution. He was talking about kicking the bucket. Pretty soon. And the guerrilla movement in Iraq just isn’t in the last throes of anything. It is in throes all right, of some sort. But there’s no death rattle to be heard except that of its victims. And we can expect this to go on for years (I’m agreeing with Rumsfeld! Help!)

The OED on etymology or the origins of words is sometimes hard to follow. But I waded through what it had to say about “throe.” And I conclude that the whole thing is probably a series of mistakes, something like Bush’s malapropisms. Throe as a word was given to us by a series of people very like Bush. It should probably be the “thrawes of death.”

[Throe is a late alteration (noted first in 1615) of the earlier throwe, throw (which survived as late as 1733). The origin and history of ME. {th}rowe (found c 1200), and its northern form {th}raw(e, {th}raw, thrau (known c 1300, and still in use in Sc.) is not quite clear.

It may come from the verb throwen or thrawen, which early on (i.e. when the Buyids of northern Iran ruled Baghdad) meant “to twist, rack, torture.” That works for me. But there are apparently reasons to think it got mixed up with other verbs over time.

Such a series of linguistic errors is hard on dictonary makers. Bush produces them by the bushel.

Bush has refered to America as the world’s “pacemakers” instead of “peacemakers”. Or he has spoken of the need for the Americas to be an “economically vile hemisphere.” He has called for “the end of terriers,” which appears to be a mongrel dog made up of “tariffs and barriers”. Or he said, “I understand there’s a suspicion that we—we’re too security-conscience.” Or “Who could have possibly envisioned an erection — an election in Iraq at this point in history?” (Jan. 10, 2005)

In the same way, some Bush ancestor seems to have messed around with thrawen and thrawe and turned it into throw and then later on misspelled it throe.

And then Dick Cheney came along and reinterpreted it as something that could last for twelve years in a row.