Lucky flukes and devils

The Star Malaysia - Star2 - - INSIGHT -

FLUKE is one of those won­der­ful words that have changed mean­ing dras­ti­cally over time. Eight hun­dred years ago, a fluke was a type of flat fish. It was also the nick­name for Tre­ma­toda, a group of flat-look­ing par­a­sitic worms that in­cludes the tape­worm. The ver­mian nick­name per­sists to­day.

Five hun­dred years ago, a fluke was the rounded part of a whale’s tail, or a type of an­chor that was shaped like a whale’s tail.

To­day’s mean­ing comes from bil­liards. The first fluke ap­peared in text in 1857. It re­ferred to a shot whereby you miss the ball you are aim­ing for, yet strike an­other ball in such a way that you score points or some­how dis­ad­van­tage your op­po­nent.

As a lucky fluke is a tau­tol­ogy, us­ing the word fluke by it­self is bet­ter English.

Ex­am­ple: The goal wasn’t a fluke! It was the re­sult of bril­liant foot­work.

To luck out

To be suc­cess­ful thanks to a lucky event in dif­fi­cult or dan- Some peo­ple think we make our own luck, while oth­ers say luck is ran­dom. ger­ous cir­cum­stances.

This Amer­i­can ex­pres­sion burst into life in the 1950s and re­mains pop­u­lar to­day. It may have been in­spired by the syn­ony­mous ex­pres­sion to luck upon that was pop­u­lar in the 1600s and 1700s. That par­tic­u­lar phrase dis­ap­peared for 200 years, popped up briefly in the 1940s, and van­ished again.

An­other re­lated phrase, to luck into mean­ing to be­come lucky through chance or ac­ci­dent, also ap­peared in the 1950s and re­mains pop­u­lar too.

Ex­am­ple: Sue thought she was go­ing to fail but she lucked out with an easy oral exam and scraped a pass.

To thank your lucky stars

To be grate­ful for some good luck.

Shake­speare talked of lucky stars in his play All’s Well That Ends Well that was staged in 1623, but the idea of the con­stel­la­tions in­flu­enc­ing your for­tune, des­tiny and char­ac­ter is so old that it goes back to the 13th cen­tury, when modern English first de­vel­oped.

Coun­try and western fans who re­mem­ber Lee Marvin’s hit, I was Born Un­der a Wan­der­ing Star, from the 1969 mu­si­cal Paint Your Wagon, might be in­ter­ested to know that Shake­speare used the phrase born un­der a char­i­ta­ble star, mean­ing that the per­son was gen­er­ous in All’s Well too.

Ex­am­ple: When Amy heard the bus had crashed, she thanked her lucky stars she’d missed it.

To take potluck

To ac­cept what­ever is given to you, with­out know­ing whether it is good or bad.

The orig­i­nal potluck ap­peared in Tu­dor times when un­ex­pected guests would take the luck of the pot and eat what­ever their host had cooked that day. From this the con­cept of the potluck din­ner arose.

Modern potluck din­ners are par­ties where ev­ery­one brings one par­tic­u­lar dish that is big enough to share. How­ever, hosts with fore­sight fudge the “luck” el­e­ment by ask­ing peo­ple to cook a starter, a salad, a pud­ding, etc. This pre­vents potlucks where ev­ery­one brings potato salad.

Ex­am­ple: The the­atre show was can­celled so we went to the cinema and took potluck.

The best of Bri­tish luck!

Of­fi­cially, this is some­thing you say when you want to en­cour­age some­one to do some­thing. How­ever, it is mostly used iron­i­cally, im­ply­ing that the per­son ei­ther won’t have any luck, or there isn’t a chance of him achiev­ing what­ever it is he has set out to do.

In­ter­est­ingly, a search through old texts re­veals that Vic­to­ri­ans wrote of “Bri­tish luck” as be­ing far su­pe­rior to the sort of luck for­eign­ers might have. The new iron­i­cal mean­ing first ap­peared in the 1960s. There is food for thought here if you’re in­ter­ested in im­pe­ri­al­ism.

Ex­am­ple: You’re go­ing to climb Ever­est and find the abom­inable snow­man? Well, best of Bri­tish luck to you!

To have the devil’s own luck

To be ex­tremely for­tu­nate. Also to have the luck of the devil, to be a lucky devil, and to have the luck of the Ir­ish.

This slightly old-fash­ioned ex­pres­sion comes from the many old sto­ries where the devil is a cun­ning in­di­vid­ual who ma­nip­u­lates cir­cum­stances to suit him­self. De­spite the use of the word devil, this ex­pres­sion doesn’t mean the lucky per­son con­cerned is cun­ning, evil or us­ing any su­per­nat­u­ral means.

If you use the al­ter­na­tive phrase, the luck of the Ir­ish, be aware that it changes mean­ing de­pend­ing on con­text. It can mean to be very lucky, to be lucky even though you are a fool, to have bad luck, and to have very good luck fol­lowed by very bad luck.

Be­cause this term has such con­tra­dic­tory mean­ings, it’s of­ten the sub­ject of heated de­bates in lan­guage fo­rums. If you use it, be pre­pared to ex­plain your con­text!

Ex­am­ple: Raj won the lot­tery twice last year. He’s got the devil’s own luck.

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