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7 September 2009


Not so much a word today, as a phrase.

"She would love him to the BITTER END"

Noting particularly unusual about that espression, you might think. But where did it orginate from?

The question of whether it originated in
nautical references to the end of mooring ropes that are attached to bitts, that is the posts on jetties and quaysides, was asled on Michael Quinion's 'World Wild Words'* recently.

Michael answered: "The idiom has had two senses. "To go on until the bitter end" today means that someone will persevere with something until it is quite finished, no matter how unpleasant or difficult that is. However, some dictionaries add a second sense: to continue to the last and direst extremity, such as total defeat or even death. The two are obviously linked, the former being a weaker version of the latter.

As you say, in nautical terminology the bitts are posts for fixing ropes to. The word is usually plural because bitts normally turn up in pairs, so that a sailor can speedily wind a rope around them in a figure of eight pattern to hold it fast without having to tie a knot. Alternatively, he can take a turn of a line around the bitts to control the rate at which he's paying it out. They're a standard part of shipboard equipment. They also turn up on quaysides, though
these are often larger and singular and are called bollards.

The word "bitt" may be Scandinavian, though nobody knows for sure. "Bitter" goes back to the early seventeenth century...

"Admiral William Smyth explained in The Sailor's Word-book in 1867 that "When a chain or rope is paid out to the bitter-end, no more remains to be let go." Hence, so the argument goes, the meaning of the idiom. But there's nothing that's necessarily unpleasant or difficult in that definition. And it's hard to imagine its giving rise to the second sense - the ultimate and direst end. Modern works usually say that the idiomatic meaning arose when a ship was trying to anchor but the water turned out to be deeper than expected; the whole cable would then be run out without the anchor touching ground.

"There is another possibility. Some larger dictionaries note this:

For the lips of a strange woman drop as an honeycomb, and her mouth is smoother than oil: But her end is bitter as wormwood, sharp as a two-edged sword. Her feet go down to death; her steps take hold on hell.
[Proverbs 5:3-5, from the King James Bible, 1611.]

"It may well be that two distinct strands developed in parallel - a literal one from the maritime world and a figurative one based on the Biblical quotation. They may well have influenced each other. We have no way of knowing. But enough evidence exists for us to be able to say that it wasn't just a sailor's expression, conceivably even that the figurative meaning isn't nautical at all."

*Thanks to Michael Quinion of WORLD WIDE WORDS. World Wide Words is copyright (c) Michael Quinion 2009. All rights reserved. The Words Web site is at http://www.worldwidewords.org