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TWTS: How many things can you batten?

You’re probably familiar with the phrase “batten down the hatches,” especially if you’ve ever turned on the Weather Channel before a major storm. 

A colleague of Professor Anne Curzan recently asked us though, can “batten” pair with anything else? Good question.

The verb “batten” in “batten down” goes back to the noun “batten” which dates back to the 16th century. The noun refers to piece of narrow, thin wood that was first used in building or carpentry.

By the 17th century, you can find “batten” in a nautical context. It referred to a narrow strip of wood that could be used to fasten edges of tarp over hatchways to keep out water in bad weather.

The verb form of “batten” goes back to the 1600s. At first it was used in carpentry to talk about strengthening with battens. By the 1800s, you can find “batten down” used in a nautical sense, just like the noun form.

We can use “batten down” either transitively or intransitively. In the transitive case, it would have an object – it would mean to tie down, to cover, to prevent something from moving or getting damaged. This is where we get “batten down the hatches” or batten down other things on a ship’s deck.

You can also find “batten down” used intransitively or without an object. In this case, it would mean to prepare for possible hard circumstances or difficulty. For example, people may batten down in the face of an impending hurricane.

We found some interesting examples of “batten down” outside of the contexts we’re used to. For instance, someone told Professor Curzan about how they’ve had to batten down their spending – in other words, rein it in. Thisblog post mentions having to “batten down and study for real,” that is, get serious about studying.

Curzan thinks use of “batten down” is expanding in our language and would love to hear how you use it. Send your “batten down” examples to language@michiganradio.org or use the form below.

Anne Curzan is the Geneva Smitherman Collegiate Professor of English and an Arthur F. Thurnau Professor at the University of Michigan. She also holds faculty appointments in the Department of Linguistics and the School of Education.
Rebecca Kruth is the host of All Things Considered at Michigan Public. She also co-hosts Michigan Public's weekly language podcast That’s What They Say with English professor Anne Curzan.
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