Striker: History of a Definition

Ladies tailors strikers

[Textile Workers in 1909 embodying the 4th definition of “striker”]

This past June/July, I spent a couple of weeks hanging out over at another LDS-themed website. I had been induced to visit this other site because I became aware my name was being used in vain.

I learned a few useful things as a result of that interaction, because some of those participating in that forum had knowledge I did not yet have. They didn’t cause me to question any of my primary theses regarding Nauvoo events, but they did make me wonder about my use of the term “striker” to describe the seducers who were telling women it was acceptable to participate in illicit intercourse. The strident critics on that other site claimed I was entirely wrong in the use of this one word. They pulled up various citations from the mid 1800s that indicated “striker” was a term that seemed to convey the idea of political activism. So I was planning to remove the term “striker” from a future update of my book, Reluctant Polygamist.

Luckily, I hadn’t gotten around to excising “striker” from my book. It turns out the term means what I thought it meant, and the word would have been even more upsetting and pertinent than I realized.

Not given to wine, no striker

The term striker is used in the King James Bible in the epistles Paul wrote to Titus and Timothy regarding qualifications for a bishop. 1 The original greek is πλήκτην, which Bible Hub tells us means “striker.” Google is even less helpful, telling us πλήκτην means “pliktin.”

Most modern Bible commentaries inform us that pliktin means a “pugnacious man.” And perhaps that’s all that Paul meant. But what did the scholars translating the Bible think “striker” meant? Why did they include striker when they had already listed “brawler” in the list of nasty traits a bishop ought not have?

Not given to wine, no striker, not greedy of filthy lucre; but patient, not a brawler, not covetous…

Striker as Wencher or Lewd Man

Back in 1913 when people still read the Bible and labor disputes involving work stoppages were a new phenomenon, Webster’s dictionary listed the following meanings for “striker“:

Strik´er

 

n. 1. One who, or that which, strikes; specifically, a blacksmith’s helper who wields the sledge.
2. A harpoon; also, a harpooner. “Wherever we come to an anchor, we always send out our strikers, and put out hooks and lines overboard, to try fish.” – Dampier.
3. A wencher; a lewd man.
4. A workman who is on a strike.
5. A blackmailer in politics; also, one whose political influence can be bought.

Note that the definition “wencher” is listed before either “a workman on strike” or “a blackmailer in politics”. Ah, the days when understanding the Bible was more important than unions and politics.

I believe it was this entry from the online Webster Dictionary that persuaded me to use the Expositor term “striker” as my term for the seducers in Nauvoo circa 1841-1842.

What did the King James Bible Translators think Striker Meant?

I was content to find an online dictionary that provided wencher as a definition for the term striker. But my husband likes to check what I say. It’s a delightful trait, leading him to do such things as review the entire Hancock County census for 1840 to ensure I’m not irresponsible in suggesting William Clayton’s reference to a transgressing “B. Y.” meant Brigham Young (Brigham Young was the only “B. Y.” in the entire county). The few times my beloved catches me out, I am enlightened and made better.

So though I was sufficiently content, my beloved continued the search, noting that a different online dictionary indicated the wencher meaning was archaic.

By searching for “striker” and “wencher” together, my husband found Gordon Williams’s amazing work “A Dictionary of Sexual Language and Imagery in Shakespearean and Stuart Literature.” 2 The 1616 pages of content (which one reviewer states is insufficiently comprehensive) can be purchased for a mere $1,463.90. Shakespeare produced most of his known work between 1589 and 1613. The Stuart period in English history (1603-1714) began with King James I, the same man who commissioned the King James Bible, a translation which began in 1604 and was completed in 1611.

Gordon Williams’s sexual language dictionary could not be more pertinent to the question of what the King James Bible translators meant when they wrote that a bishop should be “no striker…”

Striker is discussed starting on page 1332, stating that Striker means “virile whoremonger.” The entry proceeds to give us evocative examples of how striker was used in literary works written during the Stuart period. For those uncertain of the meaning of the term “whoremonger”, one dictionary provides the following definition:

Whoremonger

 

n. 1. A person who has dealings with prostitutes, especially a sexually promiscuous man.

Revisiting the Expositor Commentary

With this expanded appreciation for what the term “striker” meant to the King James translators (a meaning which clearly persisted among Bible-literate people to the beginning of the 20th century), let us look at what the Expositor claimed about those who would visit new converts arriving in Nauvoo:

“But what is taught them on their arrival at this place? They are visited by some of the Strikers, for we know not else what to call them…”

The writers of the Expositor were calling these men who visited the new converts wenchers, lewd men, whoremongers, sexually promiscuous men, men specifically not qualified for ecclesiastical office.

It was a vile slander, a slander that modern readers no longer understand.

Also lost on modern readers is exactly who was being slandered by implication. Martha Brotherton had produced an affidavit in 1842 that described how she was visited by Heber Kimball and Brigham Young. Aside from Martha’s specific assertion, senior leaders who had been missionaries to foreign converts would take it upon themselves to visit the new immigrants and ensure they were welcomed into the Nauvoo community.

The Expositor planted not just seeds but full-blown seditious doubts regarding the intent of Church leaders in visiting new converts.

Ironically, it is known the men associated with producing the Expositor had been involved in illicit intercourse with multiple women. Details regarding William Law’s adultery are scant, but Chauncey Higbee’s sexual exploits are well documented.

Now that I have a better appreciation for what the KJV translators meant by the term “striker”, I am pleased to retain “striker” as my word for the men who pressured women to participate in illicit intercourse.

Notes:

  1. Titus 1:7, 1 Timothy 3:3.
  2. Williams, Gordon, A Dictionary of Sexual Language and Imagery in Shakespearean and Stuart Literature, Bloomsbury Academic (2001).

12 thoughts on “Striker: History of a Definition

  1. I know I have seen the word “striker” used before in 19th century lit as a synonym for “womanizer,” but I can’t recall where. Perhaps Austen?

  2. My background is in linguistics, including some historical linguistics. A good resource, especially if you have access through a university library, is of course the Oxford English Dictionary (OED).

    Just a note for those not really familiar with the purpose of the OED (and linguistics in general): The OED strives to find and record all usages of a given word. From a linguistics point of view, language is neither correct nor incorrect, it just is. Something may be nonstandard for a given dialect, but there is no judgement made as to the quality of the production. For example, with a sentence like “Them are good apples,” a linguist would note that it is nonstandard for many English speakers, but ok for certain other dialects. They would not say that it is incorrect or “bad.”

    Back to the OED–we tend to look at dictionaries as the source of “rightness” about word definitions. But really, what dictionaries do is try to capture the most frequently accepted meaning (or meanings) of a given word. With the OED specifically, it tries to capture *all usages* of a given word. Again, making no judgement as to the correctness of how it’s used. So your standard OED entry will include the etymology of the word, and typically list all of the meanings associated with it from it’s beginning, with specific references from the literary sources. This is great if you are trying to hunt down information like Meg, above.

    Here is the info from the OED on “striker” (note that v = u and u = v in the original source examples):
    Entry number 2. A person (or animal) that strikes (in various senses of the verb).
    d.In indecent sense. Hence, a fornicator.

    1593 Passionate Morrice in Tell-Trothes New-yeares Gift (1876) 80 He cannot see a wench out-start the bounds of modestie, but straight he hollowes the sight of a striker, thinking it vnpossible that if shee want maidenly behauiour, shee can haue womanly honestie.

    1596 T. Nashe Haue with you to Saffron-Walden sig. T, In some Countreys no woman is so honorable as she that hath had to doo with most men, and can giue the lusteest striker oddes by 25. times in one night.

    c1635 H. Glapthorne Lady Mother (1959) iv. i. 71 These are Immodest deuills that make modest ladyes become strickers.

    1665 M. Nedham Medela Medicinæ 64 Which should be sad News to all the Strikers of both Sexes.

    So just another example that yes, striker was used with a sexual connotation in the 16th and 17th century.

    –Your friendly local linguist

  3. Yep. That excerpt about giving the lustiest striker 25 times in one night was one of the ones I was planning to leave for folks curious enough to click on the “striker” link in the post.

    Ah. To have an OED at my fingertips. That would be cool.

  4. Thus does popular culture transmogrify the language of the past.

    At work I used to refer to a particular kind of equipment as a wrecking ball. Then Miley Cyrus did her thing, and I couldn’t use that term any more.

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