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Hello,

The recent outcry about workplace harassment reminded me of the interesting history of the phrase “making a pass at somebody”. While the two things should be entirely different, of course, it’s undeniable that there’s now concern that making the first move romantically could cause trouble if either party is reading the signals wrong and this has been true with this phrase from the very beginning.

There are two possible sources for this phrase, both of them more military than romantic.

To make a pass in swordplay is to make a lunge or thrust and it’s used with this meaning in “Hamlet” in 1604.

This very likely entered military parlance from the high seas during the Age of Sail where making a pass wasn’t between two combatants but between warships according to “Sticklers, Sideburns and Bikinis” by Graeme Donald. The ships would make a side by side pass of each other to enable the captains to assess their gun-power. This would sometimes involve firing at the same time because the guns were primarily mounted in the sides of the ships. To fire a broadside, the ships had to be roughly parallel.

This nautical origin for the phrase isn’t listed in any of the dictionaries I checked but does seem reasonable. Sailors could easily have brought the term ashore to their notorious romantic lives when the mutual “checking out” was a precursor to a dalliance if acceptable to both parties.

Until next time happy reading, writing, and nautical wordfooling,

Grace

p.s. I’ve made it to 27,000 words in NaNoWriMo. If you’re trying it this year I hope your story is flowing well.

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