Get it strait, guys!

The New York Daily News runs aground in the dangerous straits of idiom.

In a story about what seems to have been a silly decision by the Bank of America to fire a bond analyst for offending someone’s prudishness, the New York Daily News makes what seems to be a silly homophone mistake.

The former director of high yield research, whose report ruffled the feathers of an increasingly straight-laced Wall Street, Susser was sacked this week for altering a photo to put his head on a woman’s body in a report titled “Checking In,” people familiar with the situation said.

English has two words pronounced str(long A)t, but they don’t have the same meaning and don’t derive from the same source. “Straight” comes from “stetch” — perhaps because stetching something is one way to straighten it — while “strait” (meaning, originally, “narrow”) comes from the Latin “strictus.”

“Strait” is still current as a noun meaning a narrow place in a body of water (e.g., “Straits of Gibraltar”), and metaphorically as meaning “dangerous situation,” but is mostly obsolete as an adjective except in two idiomatic uses.

Perhaps the more common of the two comes from the Gospels: “Enter ye in at the strait gate: for wide is the gate, and broad is the way, that leadeth to destruction, and many there be which go in thereat: Because strait is the gate, and narrow is the way, which leadeth unto life, and few there be that find it.” (Matthew 7:13) This is often corrupted into “the straight and narrow” (or “straight and narrow path”), meaning the course of virtue.

That’s wrong, but at least it isn’t nonsensical: given that one meaning of “straight” is “honest,” “straight and narrow path” isn’t a bad image for the difficulty of consistently doing the right thing. (The actual quotation reflects the convention of repetition-with-variation characteristic of Hebrew poetry — as in “Who turns the rock into a pool, and the flint into a fountain” — and sounds rather odd in English, which lacks such a convention.)

The other adjectival use of “strait,” the compound “strait-laced,” is a metaphor from the days when women corsets that could be laced more or less tightly: think of it as expressing the same image as the more recent (though now dated) “uptight.” In this case, substituting “straight” for “strait” makes the image incomprehensible: what it would mean to be “straight-laced” is more than I can fathom.

Update A reader points out that I missed another compound: “straitjacket.”

Author: Mark Kleiman

Professor of Public Policy at the NYU Marron Institute for Urban Management and editor of the Journal of Drug Policy Analysis. Teaches about the methods of policy analysis about drug abuse control and crime control policy, working out the implications of two principles: that swift and certain sanctions don't have to be severe to be effective, and that well-designed threats usually don't have to be carried out. Books: Drugs and Drug Policy: What Everyone Needs to Know (with Jonathan Caulkins and Angela Hawken) When Brute Force Fails: How to Have Less Crime and Less Punishment (Princeton, 2009; named one of the "books of the year" by The Economist Against Excess: Drug Policy for Results (Basic, 1993) Marijuana: Costs of Abuse, Costs of Control (Greenwood, 1989) UCLA Homepage Curriculum Vitae Contact: