Queering the Strike

In The Empire of Necessity, Greg Grandin gives us a fascinating history of the phrase “to strike.” Seems like a good story for May Day.

The phrase to strike to refer to a labor stoppage comes from maritime history and is an example of how revolutionary times can redefine a word to mean its exact opposite. Through the seventeenth and much of the eighteenth century, to strike was used as a metaphor for submission, referring to the practice of captured ships dropping, or striking, their sails to their conquerors and of subordinate ships doing the same to salute their superiors. “Now Margaret / must strike her sail,” wrote William Shakespeare in Henry VI, describing an invitation extended by the “Mighty King” of France to Margaret, the weaker Queen of England, to join him at the dinner table “and learn a while to serve / where kings command.” Or as this 1712 account of a British privateer taking a Spanish man-o’war off the coast of Peru put it: “fir’d two shot over her, and then she struck,” and bowed “down to us.” But in 1768, London sailors turned the term inside out. Joining city artisans and tradesmen—weavers, hatters, sawyers, glass-grinders, and coal heavers—in the fight for better wages, they struck their sails and paralyzed the city’s commerce. They “unmanned or otherwise prevented from sailing every ship in the Thames.” From this point forward, strike meant the refusal of submission.

Not unlike how gays and lesbians owned the word “queer.”


  1. Mike May 1, 2014 at 7:01 pm | #

    Not fully clear… Strike in the nautical sense is more like “put away” or “take down”. You also hear this in theatre (and merchant marine vessels) as laborors are termed “strikers”. I think strike’s etymology as a labor action is from workman striking their tools, I.e., not working with them or putting them away.

    • NathanH May 3, 2014 at 2:00 pm | #

      The etymology of ‘strike’ includes the German *streichen*, whose definitions include “cancel” and “delete”.

  2. Chris June 1, 2014 at 5:38 am | #

    Gays and lesbians don’t own the word queer. Only academics and hipsters regard the word as a positive thing – ordinary gays and lesbians find it offensive because it’s used as an insult against them.

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