NOOSES GIVE.

Anatoly recently posted a Russian translation of Dorothy Parker’s 1925 poem “Resumé” along with the original, a gem long familiar to me:

Razors pain you;
Rivers are damp;
Acids stain you;
And drugs cause cramp.
Guns aren’t lawful;
Nooses give;
Gas smells awful;
You might as well live.

But, as he writes me, there’s an argument in the comments section about the exact meaning of “nooses give” in the original: some say that the noose may break off under the weight of a body, while others advocate for the meaning of “stretch, become looser.” As I wrote him in response,

Now that I think about it, I realize that line has never completely made sense to me: how exactly does a noose “give” (OED: “yield, give way”; M-W: “to yield to physical force or strain; to collapse from the application of force or pressure”)? A rope can break, sure, but can a noose, the knotted part around your neck, “yield, give way”? Doesn’t seem likely. My guess is that she knew it was inexact phrasing but went with it because of the rhyme.

But I don’t trust my own judgment on this, so I throw it (like a juicy bone) to the assembled multitudes. Snap, stretch, or poetic license?

Comments

  1. I take “nooses give” as a reference to the knot untying or loosening to the point where you slide out.

  2. Isn’t it simply that ‘noose’ is being made to stand for the whole kaboodle used to hang oneself – as when it would have been said that such and such a person was ‘for the noose’? It would be the rope above the noose that would ‘give’ or snap – the noose would indeed, presumably, just tighten until that happened (if one were lucky, or unlucky, enough). I’m sorry to use the word ‘kaboodle’ (well, not that sorry actually) – I just can’t think of a word or phrase that means rope-chair-or-ladder-and-support-for-rope – she’s not talking about about an official gibbet sanctioned with the awful weight of law here, after all, is she?

  3. I’d always envisaged the knot tying the noose to the beam or whatever unravelling when it had to take the weight of the body.
    I don’t think of the noose as just the part round your neck, it’s the whole piece or rope.

  4. I think the noose can be the whole rope, but I’ve still been confused by the line. I think for me “give” in that context can refer only to stretching or loosening. If the rope were actually breaking, it would have to be “give way”.

  5. I take “nooses give” as a reference to the knot untying or loosening to the point where you slide out.
    But can that actually happen? I can’t picture it.
    And I think I agree with KCinDC about breaking.

  6. The the way you die by hanging is supposed to be that the drop causes the big knot that’s positioned behind your head to snap your neck. End of story. But not quite. There’s a science to calculating the amount of slack that’s allowed in the rope as the condemned person stands on the trap door, taking into account particularly the victim’s weight. This determines the distance he or she should drop. If the drop is too long (gory details warning), not only does the knot break your neck, but your head comes right off. This befell (pun intended) Saddam Hussein’s half brother not long ago. But if the drop is too short, rather than cracking your neck, the noose “gives” a little by just tightening around your neck without breaking it. In this case, you’ll die from suffocation, but not immediately, so death becomes an unpleasant experience as in the other methods enumerated in the ditty. More here about the guy who figured out some of the physics: http://www.billgreenwell.com/lost_lives/index.php?key_id=586

  7. I really do think it’s the noose knot that might give away; the ‘nooses give’ is a (kind of a) metonymy for ‘hangman’s knots give.’
    I also doubt that she gave it a lot of thought.

  8. I always imagined it as a homemade rope fashioned into a noose, and the whole contraption stretching until her feet were on the floor, without causing more than a momentary choke. Pathetically comical. But that isn’t really the literal sense, so I would have to assume Literary License, because it allows the reader to fill in with imagination.

  9. I always thought it was a shorthand, nooses don’t generally “give” in the traditional sense, but I thought she was referring to “give” as a description of what the noose might do to your neck. Create a little more “give” to it…I don’t know. Sounds stupid writing it, actually. But considering that the other lines generally refer to the effect on the body, “drugs…cramps” “river..damp” and most of all “acids stain you” I initially took this to be a reference to what hanging does to your body, and the only explanation that made sense in that instance is if she was referring to the neck giving and condensed it for meter’s sake. Gah. Probably not, feel free to mock me at will. :)

  10. Like Zhoen, I was just picturing a do-it-yourself job from a chair, & the rope stretching so that your feet touched the ground, so you could neither strangle nor get out of the damn thing. It could of course just mean “give way,” as I suppose a noose tied by an amateur might, & drop you in an ignominious heap. But the former seems more in line with the other failed endings.

  11. I think the zhoen/dale theory makes the most sense of those proffered so far.

  12. Sinatra:
    When an irresistible force such as you
    Meets an old immovable object like me
    You can bet just as sure as you live
    Somethin’s gotta give
    Somethin’s gotta give
    Somethin’s gotta give
    “Give” just means “move”, without being specific. In the above example it just means “fails under load” without saying how. If you push on something hard enough, it will give–the important part is that it makes more space at your end, and not the technical details of how the move is accomplished on the other end.

  13. I always took it for synecdoche, the noose standing for the whole rope. Maybe she wrote it that way deliberately in order to provoke discussion on the degrees of convergence and dissonance between synecdoche and metonymy. Or maybe just because it fitted the rhyme.

  14. When I read that I always imagined it meant that nooses (or more particularly, their knots) slip. I agree that if you think about this too much it doesn’t work as well. But on the other hand, why should this individual potential failures stand up? Why should any of them? The argument is, after all, a series of excuses for something which oughtn’t need one. I’m not sure how deeply to read Dorothy Parker.

  15. None of the other methods she lists fail to actually kill the person, they just are made less appealing. The noose still works, i.e. does not break or slip, it is just uncomfortable. Martin’s explanation seems dead on in this respect. Death is not immediate, your neck is not broken at the time of the drop, you suffocate to death, you are made aware of the way in which you are dying.

  16. rootlesscosmo says:

    In the above example it just means “fails under load” without saying how.
    @nijma: I think that’s probably the clearest description of what I envisioned, either the rope stretching or the ceiling fixture coming loose–something to turn high tragedy into wry comedy. In Ingmar Bergman’s “Smiles of a Summer Night” a lovesick young man tries to hang himself but instead falls heavily against a mechanism that magically brings his beloved, looking adorable in a canopied bed decorated with cherubs, directly into his presence; it’s a sweet scene, one of very few in that director’s work, that gently mocks youthful melodrama while approving youthful desire.

  17. I’m not sure how deeply to read Dorothy Parker.
    According to the link, Parker’s last suicide attempt was in 1932, she died in 1967.
    An old friend of mine from college/commune days who had scars on her wrists told me some stories about how some people are just failures at whatever they do, including suicide.

  18. Hangman’s knot is unlikely to untie under load. However, a person inexperienced in the skill of hanging oneself may use an improper knot (that may actually untie itself).

  19. michael farris says:

    How many people try to hang themselves with a hangman’s knot?
    And in common (at least my) usage, noose would refer to the whole rope.
    I would generally interpret the line as referring to all the things that can go wrong with a self hanging (whether or not the ‘goes wrong’ still results in death or not).
    The rope can break,
    The rope can stretch too much,
    The knot (certainly not a professional hangman’s knot) can come undone,
    The rope can become untied from the beam….

  20. I agree that if you think about this too much it doesn’t work as well.
    And thinking about things too much is the name of the game here at LH!
    Great discussion, and I’m interested to see how many people take “noose” as equivalent to “rope.”

  21. Gas smells awful;
    England in the early seventies switched from using coal gas to North Sea gas, which has no smell. They (the gas company) added a fake gas smell to avoid accidents (or on-purposes). It smells as bad as town gas did though they could have chosen any smell they liked, I guess.

  22. I’m interested to see how many people take “noose” as equivalent to “rope.”
    Of course a noose is a rope with a knot in the end of it and not what it’s fastened to or not fastened to. But when you use it with “give”, then you add in the unseen things it’s connected with.
    The knot at the end of the noose I would call a “hangman’s knot”.
    I’m trying to think of a good example and the only one that comes to mind is a bookshelf. Say you want to add a book to the shelf and it’s a bit tight. So you slide your hand between two books and push on one of them until it “gives” or moves. Now you have a space and can slide the new volume into it. But that says nothing about how the space was created. It could have been by compression of the other books, but you might also have had another volume slip out the back, or you might have even cracked the bookcase or displaced a joint. So while it was the book you pushed on that “gave”, that says nothing about the reason for its movement or the mechanics behind it.
    I used to play hangman with the students when we had an extra 5 minutes at the end of class–it’s good for learning the names of the letters. It just occurred to me we haven’t done that lately–since the Saddam execution.

  23. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=r_Z9VoMJkmU
    an example of a noose-rope giving

  24. marie-lucie says:

    Perhaps this North Sea gas is propane, which has no smell and always has smelly stuff added. Not pleasant, but the awful smell warns you right away to open the windows and turn the gas off. With a pleasant smell you might be tempted to inhale more deeply and kill yourself in the process.

  25. I don’t see how having a rope that’s too short and therefore causes strangulation has anything to do with the word “give”. How is the noose giving in that case?

  26. Why we’re at it, how many people consider acid as a suicide method? It sounds worse than setting yourself on fire, which seems to be chosen only for political protest suicides.

  27. marie-lucie says:

    In the absence of more gentle means (such as swallowing a bottleful of sleeping pills), some people try poisoning themselves by swallowing caustic household substances, which might not only stain your skin but severely burn your insides, causing atrocious pain along the way. They rarely survive, but only endure a prolonged death. Brrrr.

  28. Surely noose gives, acid burns, etc are simply devices to make the poem work ….

  29. AJP Crown says:

    But, and despite the expression ‘poetic license’, the poem DOESN’T work if the devices are inaccurately described. Good poetry is rigorously thought out, no sloppy thinking.
    In my experience of hangings the element that is most likely to fail is the beam that is holding the rope and its noose. By the way, in England, for the past tense you’re supposed to say ‘hanged’ and not ‘hung’; is that the case in America too? ‘Hung’ in England is ok for meat and penises and so on, but not for executions. I don’t mean to tell anyone what to say, only asking…

  30. By the way, in England, for the past tense you’re supposed to say ‘hanged’ and not ‘hung’
    Supposed? You’re just trying to provoke me, aren’t you Crown?
    None of the other methods she lists fail to actually kill the person, they just are made less appealing.
    What about guns not being lawful? That just seems kind of lame to me. I mean, someone trying kill themselves, what do they care?

  31. AJP Crown says:

    Provoke? I understand the expresion is Heh, heh heh.

  32. By the way, in England, for the past tense you’re supposed to say ‘hanged’ and not ‘hung’; is that the case in America too?
    It used to be; at least, that’s the form I was told to use when I was a wee lad. I don’t know if anyone cares anymore. These things rise and fall in perceived importance.

  33. Way up here in Aotearoa, we were always taught that “hanged” was used only in the capital punishment sense. A picture was hung on a wall, a murderer was hanged. A usage relic from Old Blighty, I’m sure.

  34. Re hanged/hung: some people care enormously, some find it risible, and some just shrug and go along with whatever is easiest at the moment. As hanging went out of fashion, so did insisting that the different forms *had* to have different meanings, I expect.

  35. AJP Crown says:

    I like ‘hanged’, only one meaning, it sounds scarier.
    “You will be taken from here to a place of execution, where you shall be hanged by the neck until you be dead and God have mercy on your soul.” No such thing as parking tickets in those days.
    Nevertheless “hung from the yardarm” gets more hits (670) than “hanged from the yardarm” (485).

  36. Nooses give [way]

  37. Doc: That leaves us with the same problem, just an extra word.

  38. “Give” is not the same as “give way”. A noose that gives way would break or collapse–but a noose can’t do that. Then you wouldn’t have a noose anymore, but a noose tied to something. “Give way” doesn’t include stretching or slipping, but “gives” includes those meanings and breaking as well.

  39. Actually, traditional hangings were short-drop, i.e. suffocations. Used in the US and by the witchhunters, too, I think. Isn’t there a scene in Oliver Twist where the wee lad has to smuggle in a silvertube for some condemned criminal so that his throat won’t collapse? (Ridiculous idea, of course – the rope likely closes off the blood circulation rather than airflow per se). I think the suffragette character in North & South who kills a senator (representative?) is hung the same way. What’s her name? She’s played by that crazy $cientologist from Cheers.
    The long-drop is a relatively recent innovation by an English hangman who was appalled at the barbarism.

  40. John Emerson says:

    Death by strangulation can be very pleasant. Auto-erotic asphyxiation is a fairly frequent cause of death.
    So don’t knock it until you’ve tried it.

  41. John Emerson says:

    Death by strangulation can be very pleasant. Auto-erotic asphyxiation is a fairly frequent cause of death.
    So don’t knock it until you’ve tried it.

  42. John Emerson says:

    It’s much more common than I thought:
    The great majority of known erotic asphyxial deaths are male; among all known cases in Ontario and Alberta from 1974 to 1987, only one out of 117 cases was female.
    Eight a year in two provinces of Canada!

  43. John Emerson says:

    It’s much more common than I thought:
    The great majority of known erotic asphyxial deaths are male; among all known cases in Ontario and Alberta from 1974 to 1987, only one out of 117 cases was female.
    Eight a year in two provinces of Canada!

  44. Vilhelm S says:

    jamessal: The point of the poem as I read is that *all* the reasons given are “kind of lame” — if you are going to kill youself, then worrying that the river is too “damp” is a delicious understatement. And so on.

  45. A.J.P. Norks says:

    She’s played by that crazy $cientologist from Cheers.
    Tom Cruise.

  46. When I get sued, I’m sending you the bill, Norks.

  47. A.J.P. Norks says:

    Sorry. I meant T.m C….e.

  48. Nah, I’m pretty sure this one had legs.
    Your attempts at allure not withstanding, mr Emerson, I think I’ll prefer to go like Ross from Frasier: at ninety, in my bed, from exhaustion – leaving my lover(s) so distressed that they’ll drop out of high school.

  49. Vilhelm S:
    To say that all the concerns expressed in the poem are intentionally lame and that “the river is damp” is a “delicious understatement” is, I think, to say two very different things.
    That said, I wasn’t criticizing the poem per se; I was merely noting that if we’re to go with davidf’s reading, the one item about the gun is inconsistent, in that a gun’s being illegal doesn’t make it any less pleasant to shoot yourself (whereas, of course, a “damp” river will freeze you to the bone, a razor will hurt like hell, and gas…yuck! — can you imagine breathing in all that gas?).

  50. a gun’s being illegal doesn’t make it any less pleasant to shoot yourself
    Some people may actually find criminal activity unpleasant, or at least they did in 1925. I have no idea how to obtain an illegal gun; I think you have to go over to the seamy side of town and buy one from someone who is selling them to children out of the trunk of their car. And then of course afterwards the police will confiscate them. My neighbor tried to get the two guns his brother had in his house after he shot himself, but never did.

  51. mollymooly says:

    Gas smells awful
    I wonder if suicide by gas was more frequent among those with a blocked nose.
    Hanged: no less an authority then Henry Higgins:
    By law she should be taken out and hung
    For the cold-blooded murder of the English tongue

  52. David Marjanović says:

    What about guns not being lawful? That just seems kind of lame to me. I mean, someone trying kill themselves, what do they care?

    Availability. (Outside the US where “if you outlaw guns, only outlaws will have guns” because there’s such a humongous black market. And even that’s relative, as Nijma explained above.)

  53. I have no idea how to obtain an illegal gun; I think you have to go over to the seamy side of town and buy one from someone who is selling them to children out of the trunk of their car.
    I think gun shows are supposed to be the way to go. Apparently there’s one in about week about thirty minutes from me.
    David: Even if guns really are impossible to get in countries other than US in which they’re illegal (which I’m happy to take your word for), the line still isn’t entirely consistent with the rest of the poem if (big IF) we’re meant to read it as davidf did above. For the gun, you’re saying “Shucks, I can’t get one.” The rest you’re contemplating with understated terror. That’s all I was saying.

  54. I think I’ll prefer to go like Ross from Frasier: at ninety, in my bed, from exhaustion – leaving my lover(s) so distressed that they’ll drop out of high school.
    Not that I’m opposed to robbing the cradle, but an
    uneducated guy, no matter how nubile—Eewww!

  55. gun shows:
    I once handled a reproduction pistol with I think it’s called a touch hole for lighting the gunpowder. It was a pleasure to touch something so well crafted, but the gun show thing is just creepy. Imagine the tatoos.
    http://lcav.org/content/gun_shows.pdf

  56. A.J.P. Krone says:

    I think Jamessal is right, but since it’s a very subtle point it has probably escaped some of you. Let’s see… ah, yes: :-)))
    All the other forms of suicide in the list cause discomfort: damp, cramp, etc. The one that’s really dependable (and if I were going to pop myself — a gun metaphor — I’d probably use a gun, because it’s quick and dependable) does not cause discomfort. AND YET, ladies and gentlemen, it it is still ruled out! And why? For the lame reason that it is IL-LEGAL (although nevertheless available). If Dorothy Parker had given two such examples rather than just one, she would not have caused this misleading focus on the gun, and I could have stayed in bed for an extra twenty minutes. It’s a good thing I’m getting well paid to write this stuff.

  57. Thanks, Kron. Your twenty minutes was well-spent.

  58. I don’t like the idea of guns. Much too messy.
    Personally, I’d try to get a good supply of carbonmonoxide.

  59. Sili:
    I knew a guy who once attempted a neat suicide. He took a bunch of pills and went to a motel room and wrote a note to his family. He put on nice clean pajamas and got into bed and fell asleep, hands folded on his chest. A few hours later, he woke up in the ER covered in vomit. He’d made so much noise, unconsciously puking, that the people in the next room called 911. (Me, I’m going with the gun — and perhaps avoiding this thread for a while. Geez.)

  60. Guns and suicide is mostly a guy thing. Women rarely use a gun.

  61. found this
    нарсны оройд
    нарийхан олс
    найгах бие
    нар жаргав…
    The pine-tree
    A Thin rope
    Swinging body
    Setting sun

  62. Hence why I said CO – I know pills are unreliable. And cyanides very painful.
    Random trivia: many teenagers overdose on paracetamol as a cry for attention, thinking that OTC painkillers can’t hurt much. Kills the liver – only way to help is a transplant – not gonna happen – dead in a week – very slowly and painfully.

  63. David Marjanović says:

    Personally, I’d try to get a good supply of carbonmonoxide.

    Suffocating cannot be pleasant. What about jumping down from somewhere really high?

    found this

    Wow. What language is it?

  64. What about jumping down from somewhere really high?
    should be ecstatic i guess
    What language is it?
    Mongolian

  65. Since you can’t get alcohol on the reservation, the Indian kids used to sniff gasoline. One came into a state hospital brain damaged and unable to walk. In the course of 9 months or so he gradually improved, got some of his speech back, and was starting to learn to walk. I used to read the charts late at night when there wasn’t a card game going on and found out it wasn’t his first admission. A year or so earlier he did the same thing and they taught him how to walk again back then too. Death wish, or something else?
    And while we’re on the subject of jumping from high places, what about the ones who jump out of perfectly good airplanes? Death wish, or something else?

  66. Same problem as with guns. Damn mess for someone to clean up afterwards.

  67. The poem, I think, is about a person that has giving any hope on society. It is that so that he/she can’t get help to even take his/her own life. Society is so corrupted that nothing works properly. Dorothy puts the person right in the center of the degraded environment by using senses like smell (Gas smells awful) or sight (Rivers are damp). At the end the only hope is to keep going … very elegant positive message.

    By the way “nooses give” means just that: nooses give, nooses are of so bad quality that they wouldn’t hold you if you try to hang your self.

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