When Botch Meant the Opposite of Botch

A Blog About Language
May 8 2014 2:17 PM

When Botch Meant the Opposite of Botch

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Governor Mary Fallin (R-Okla.) says, "The people of Oklahoma do not have blood on their hands."

Photo by BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI/AFP/Getty Images

The state of Oklahoma came in for some well-deserved criticism last week after it mishandled the execution of Clayton D. Lockett, a death row inmate who was convicted in 2000 of the kidnapping and rape of a young woman and the brutal murder of her friend. The Department of Corrections was forced to abort its lethal injection protocol after a vein in Lockett's groin—in which a catheter had been inserted—collapsed, stanching a three-drug cocktail mid-execution. Lockett, who awoke and began talking incoherently, later died of a heart attack. As Lockett's attorney, David Autry, put it to the press, "It was a horrible thing to witness. This was totally botched."

Headline writers from NPR to the Associated Press to the New York Times picked up on the word botched, which seemed to strike the right tone of bureaucratic mismanagement and incompetence. In the online magazine ThinkProgress, culture editor Jessica Goldstein noted that she was surprised to see "such a charged word" in mainstream accounts of the execution. "'Botched' doesn't have the gloss of objectivity that news usually requires," she wrote.

As Goldstein points out, the last time botch appeared so prominently in the news was following the launch of HealthCare.gov, Exhibit A for those who believe that government is hopelessly and constitutionally inept. How botch became the mot juste for a royal screwup, however, is curious, since "to botch" did not originally mean "to mess up." In fact, it meant the opposite.

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The word's earliest known citation, with the spelling bocchyn, is in a 14th century translation of the Old Testament's Second Chronicles, which gives an account of the reign of Josiah, who collected money to refurbish the Temple of Solomon. Here's 2 Chronicles 34:10 in the New American Standard Version of the Bible from the early 1970s:

Then they gave [the money] into the hands of the workmen who had the oversight of the house of the LORD, and the workmen who were working in the house of the LORD used it to restore and repair the house.

In the late 1300s, under the direction of the theologian John Wycliffe, the Old Testament was translated from Latin into Middle English. Here's the same chapter and verse from Wycliffe's Bible:

[T]he dwellers of Jerusalem, thei token in the hondis of hem that stoden vpon to the werkmen in the hous of the Lord, that thei enstoren the temple, and eche feble thingus thei bocchyn.

As you can see, the workmen were paid to "bocchyn," or fix, "all feeble things." By the 16th century, though, botch took on the meaning of not simply repairing or putting back together, but doing so poorly, similar to the way we use "jury-rig" today. In Act IV of Hamlet, a Gentleman tells Gertrude about the mad ravings of Ophelia, who speaks, he says, of conspiracies involving the death of her father:

She speaks much of her father; says she hears 
There's tricks i' th' world, and hems, and beats her heart; 
Spurns enviously at straws; speaks things in doubt, 
That carry but half sense. Her speech is nothing, 
Yet the unshaped use of it doth move 
The hearers to collection; they aim at it, 
And botch the words up fit to their own thoughts;

In other words, Ophelia's cryptic, jumbled rants are "botched up," or shoddily assembled, by those around her, who hear whatever they're inclined to hear. And we wouldn’t want anyone jumping to conclusions, now, would we?

Nowadays, botch is frequently used without any explicit tie-in to an attempt to rehab, however badly, something in disrepair. The Oklahoma State Penitentiary wasn't trying to "fix" Lockett, unless you construe Lockett's being alive as the problem and his death the solution. Rather, it had a job to do and did it defectively. In Passages from the French and Italian Note-Books, Nathaniel Hawthorne writes of a contemporary sculptor named Clark Mills, who he called "certainly the greatest bungler that ever botched a block of marble." Mills had just received a commission for what is now Lieutenant General George Washington, the iconic equestrian statue in Washington, D.C.'s Washington Circle, and Hawthorne, who found one of Mills' previous sculptures "wretched and ridiculous," was not happy about it.

Botch's about-face is further complicated by its unknown etymology. How it came to arrive in Middle English in the 1300s is a mystery. Walter William Skeat, a giant in 19th-century English-language philology, suggested that it may derive from a German word, butzen, which originally meant "to strike," but the editors of the Oxford English Dictionary don't see any evidence of a connection. The OED editors make a different conjecture. Perhaps botch is an onomatopoeic alteration of the word "patch," which means "to repair" and also shows up in Middle English in the 1300s.

For a time, botch held on to both "repair" and "make a mess of" as possible meanings, making it a contronym, a word that can be its own opposite, like "sanction" or "inflammable." Only the pejorative sense survives, and, when leveled directly at an individual, acts much like an ad hominem, carrying not only a presumption of culpability but implicit disdain. Being on the receiving end of the word can feel like a personal attack. There is one way, of course, to guarantee that you'll avoid such a judgment: Don't botch things up.

Mike Vuolo is a radio and podcast producer and the host of Lexicon Valley.

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