Tuesday, January 7, 2020

"Time goes on crutches"

       A Man on Crutches (1878) by Edouard Manet
                    Metropolitan Museum of Art
    After a lifetime of using crutches only metaphorically, to dismiss unseemly forms of support, it was odd to suddenly lean upon a crutch in a very real and literal sense.
     Not being a very rambunctious child, I never broke my leg, so never before last week had to wrap my hands around crutches, a pair of which I was assigned when leaving Northwestern Memorial Hospital with my new metal hip.
     The education started before I was rolled out the door, crutches held firmly before me, like a battle standard. I was not to support my weight on my armpits. 
    "There are a lot of nerves in your armpits and you can damage them that way," the physical therapist said. Rather I was to brace myself with my hands. Otherwise I faced woes common enough to earn their own names: crutch paralysis and crutch palsy. (The standard crutch is called an "axillary crutch," axilla being the technical name for your armpit. Good Scrabble word).
     Forearm crutches, considered more ergonomically sound, are more popular in Europe than here, where they've never caught on. 
Terracotta amphora, 480–460 B.C. (Metropolitan Museum)
     I found crutches easy to get around with, even on our many flights of stairs, when I transfer them to my free hand: one hand on the rail, the other holding the crutches as a kind of double-staff.
     Then yesterday, time on my hands, I considered the word "crutch," and played the game where I try to guess its derivation. Old, obviously, related to "crotch," no doubt, denoting the Y shape. Close. A thousand years old, spread through Old- and Middle-English, plus other Germanic languages—in Dutch it's kruk—the word is closer to "crook," as in shepherd's crook, and denotes bentness.  Through most of history a crutch was a Y-shaped stick.
      The first definition in my 1970s Oxford English Dictionary would never fly today: "1. A staff for a lame or infirm person to lean upon in walking." Setting aside the odd "in walking" usage—wouldn't "when walking" be better?—I figure "lame" must have gone by the wayside. And indeed, the online Webster's elevates crutch users to "the disabled." (Nothing like the definite article to denote official societal pity: "the disabled." "The homeless." I guess I should be grateful we aren't at "The journalists.")
     The OED has crutch as a verb, a form I never considered. "Up and down ... the various steps ... do we delight to crutch it," reads an 1828 reference. 
Crutches were used in Ancient Egypt
     The symbolic crutch starts cooking about 400 years ago. Crutch as code for age is all over Shakespeare. When old Capulet, in his dressing gown, comes upon a disturbance in the streets of Verona in the first scene of "Romeo and Juliet," he calls for his long sword, but his wife immediately shuts that down, saying, "A crutch, a crutch! why call you for a sword?" Thanks dear. 
    Although, to be fair, "crutch" is not always a negative in Shakespeare.
    "Lay hold upon him Priam, hold him fast," Cassandra urges in "Troilus and Cressida." "He is thy crutch, now if thou loose thy stay." 
    Crutch can also be a metaphorical verb, as in Dryden:  "Two fools that crutch their feeble sense on verse."
     I've leaned on "crutch" a few times myself.   In 2008, when John McCain was running for president, and brushed aside questions about how many homes he owns with a lofty reference to his North Vietnamese captivity, I wrote:
     "To say that, as a hero, he can put his heroism to work any way he pleases misses a crucial point: McCain is not the only hero. What about all the other men and women who served and suffered, proud individuals who face their daily challenges and do not whip out their heroism as a Get-Out-of-Jail-Free card to blow off whatever mess they've created? Who don't cite their service when getting a traffic ticket? Doesn't McCain owe a duty to THEM, to wear his record with the grace and honor it deserves, and not transform it into a cheap political tool, already being mocked as 'a crutch' and 'the POW card.'

         Le Grand Opéra(1821) by Eugène Delacroix
     Crutches are one of those interesting devices that are blandly accepted in actuality—nobody snickers at you for using crutches—but distinctly negative as metaphor, a situation not found in other dual purpose words like "bandage" or "medicine." Using a crutch is never a good thing unless there's something wrong with your leg.
    The handsome aluminum pair I received were McKesson crutches, by the way, and if the name means nothing to you, don't feel bad, it meant nothing to me either. A sure sign of just how under-the-radar the enormous medical establishment really is.  With revenues of $208 billion, McKesson is No. 7 on the Fortune 500, down from No. 6 last year. Four of the top 10 companies on the Forbes list are in the healthcare industry, a reminder of exactly why Americans don't have national health care and probably never will: because it is very, very profitable that we don't.


  1. After six (count 'em, six) knee operations over the years, I own my own set of forearm crutches. Much easier to use.

  2. And even Medicare is not free, no matter how insistent the insurance companies are in advertising ing that there "may" be no charge for one thing or another. If you don't pay up front, you pay later. But when you have major surgery, is it nice to look at that huge bill that you don't have to pay...supposedly.


  3. McKesson was a distributor in the 70's. Now a major player. Quite the growth story. I suspect there is too much concentration in that industry. Where are the antitrust folks?
    and as a crutch user, thanks, I enjoyed learning more.

  4. I needed a crutch after breaking an ankle and nobody told me not to support my weight on my armpits. Or anything else. Good to know for next time.

    A lovely etymological excursion.



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