She Caned the Machines.

I was reading Libby Purves’ lively TLS review (archived) of Siân Evans’ Maiden Voyages: Women and the golden age of transatlantic travel when I found myself baffled by this sentence:

Exercise became fashionable (Nancy Astor caned the rowing machines and ran laps of the deck) and onboard pools needed swimming instructresses.

She did what to the rowing machines? Fortunately the OED (s.v. cane) came to my aid:

transitive. Chiefly British.

a. To punish severely, to subject to rough treatment; to use excessively or carelessly.

1925 E. Fraser & J. Gibbons Soldier & Sailor Words 46 ‘Smith got properly caned at the Orderly Room this morning’, i.e. got a stiff sentence of C.B. [= confinement to barracks].
1932 R. G. Curtis Edgar Wallace xii. 206 Ruthlessly caning a decrepit car all the way from London.
1968 R. Mann Headliner xxxiv. 222 They really caned him. £250,000. I’d no idea they awarded that kind of money.
1998 R. Newman Manners 137 Next day I discovered there’d been two youths in the kitchen holding his health visitor hostage, while a third was out caning her Mastercard.
2007 Independent 17 Mar. (Save & Spend section) 14/2 We’ve all been caned by the stock markets lately.

b. Chiefly Sport. To defeat heavily; to beat easily.

1961 E. Partridge Dict. Slang (ed. 5) II. 1027/2 Cane, to defeat.

c. slang. To take or consume (recreational drugs or alcohol), esp. rapidly or to excess. Also to cane it (frequently implying long-term or habitual behaviour of this type).

1991 K. Waterhouse Jeffrey Bernard is Unwell II. 35 Oh, and talking of the law, Norman, I appear to have caned the best part of a bottle of vodka.
1992 R. Graef Living Dangerously iv. 97 My friend’s uncle was a Charlie dealer so my friend used to get ounces on tic. He had an ounce and we all went up his house and we washed out a gram of it and had a bit, and then that progressed into washing out the whole lot and just caning (taking) it all.
2008 C. Newkey-Burden in J. Burchill & C. Newkey-Burden Not in my Name App. 181 He took drugs for England, he knocked the drugs on the head… Most importantly, he has never hypocritically dissed anyone else who still canes it.

This is a public service message for those Yanks who, like me, had never encountered the term; I guess we’d say “Nancy Astor hit the rowing machines.”


  1. cuchuflete says

    I guess we’d say “Nancy Astor hit the rowing machines.”

    This yank would be more apt to say ‘punished’.

  2. In NZ, we have a rugby team called The Hurricanes — because they’re based in Wellington, the windy city. Shortened to ‘canes. Which gives sports writers all sorts of opportunities:

    The ‘canes caned the Blues. Bulls give Hurricanes a caning.

    But somehow Nancy Astor seems too genteel to “cane” anything.

  3. David Eddyshaw says

    I wouldn’t have understood it either.

    Conceivably this is because in the Good Old Days of Latin, cold baths and merciless flogging, the traditional method of corporal punishment in Scottish schools was the unimpeachably virtuous Presbyterian tawse rather than the morally suspect English cane.

  4. Examples of the tawse, made in Lochgelly. That schoolmaster looks infernally pleased with himself.

  5. David Eddyshaw says

    It was pretty much inescapable when I was at school, even if you were a Goody-Two-Shoes (as I naturally was, of course.)

    It was used as a motivator as much as a punishment, which effectively made it useless for disciplinary purposes as we were all habituated to it anyway. The masters who could keep order didn’t need it, and for those who couldn’t, it didn’t help.

    I recall on one occasion when we were (to be fair) rioting in the happy absence of our form master, the Rector, coming to sort us out (for which his sheer force of personality was sufficient, in reality) gave us all the choice between the tawse and writing out the School Song in its entirety. Every one of us chose the first option (which may say something about the School Song.)

  6. The University of Miami Hurricanes are also sometimes shortened to “the ‘Canes.” I can’t recall encountering any further wordplay based on that, however.

  7. That was one of the good things about Soviet school: corporal punishments were believed to be “a horrible and long forgotten historical concept and just unthinkable evil”, somehow associated with horrors of the Tsarism and with clergy (well, yes: with seminarias specifically). I do not mean that no one practiced it, but I never heard about it.

    Many grumbled that our school makes us accustomed to disrespect (and possibly teaches it to us) and this grumbling is deserved, but it was always verbal abuse. The punishments are : expelling a student from the classroom and “leading her to the director”. The latter was rare and usually was only a threat, so it was supposedly the worst.

    A freind of mine (who only attended school as a teenager and thus is feral) once led her teacher to the director. The teacher was subjecting her to verbal abuse because of her improper dress and pulled her collar and tore off a button.

  8. David Eddyshaw says

    I can’t say that I was deeply traumatised or anything. It’s not like it was humiliating*, and it was such an everyday thing that you just got used to it as part of school life.

    * Quite the contrary, inasmuch as the really disruptive kids made quite a pantomime of being not at all bothered by it (it was done in front of the entire class.) Rather like the Fulɓe soro initiation rite …

  9. @DE, I do not expect children to be traumatized by it. Just not a good thing.

    My personal objections are
    (1) it is just ugly (that is, I do not like it intuitively)
    (2) it is unnecessary, because in a society where corporal punishments are not practiced the schools are… the same. Maybe it is better, or maybe not but children are studying rather than being consumed by Chaos.
    (3) when as a high school student I found myself in an educational community characterized by a very high level of respect to children (but I do not mean respect as in “using polite plural while addressing kids”, I mean the sort of respect you have for your best freidns) it felt like heaven and earth indeed. So whatever is that that I called “respect” (not sure it is exactly respect), it must be a good thing.

    Another possible objection (4) is that getting used to some sort of treatment as a child can make you reproduce this model of behaviour.

  10. when as a high school student I found myself in an educational community characterized by a very high level of respect to children (but I do not mean respect as in “using polite plural while addressing kids”, I mean the sort of respect you have for your best freidns) it felt like heaven and earth indeed.

    Same here.

  11. Sounds like it’s more like “killed it on the rowing machines” than merely hitting them.

  12. In isolation I’d say sure, why not, but in this context — “caned the rowing machines and ran laps of the deck” — the second half is so anodyne I think the very emphatic “killed it on the rowing machines” would unbalance the phrase.

  13. Ali G (an alter ego of Borat creator Sacha Baron Cohen) and Dr Rhodes Boyson (teacher and Thatcher-era Tory politician specialising in education in the UK) talk at cross-purposes about “caning” here: .

    Rhodes Boyson was a keen proponent of corporal punishment; Ali G thought it “wicked” (ie good) that he apparently supported kids being caned (in – spoiler alert – the c. slang. definition) while in school.

    As for “caning” a rowing machine – I don’t think it is the same as “hitting” it. You could hit the rowing machine for a ten-minute workout, then hit the shower and then hit the bar. Caning it implies – to me – going at it hammer and tongs with great energy for a considerable period of time, and several times while on the ship in the Astor case. You would hit the bar and then “cane it” while in there, but you wouldn’t cane the bar per se.

  14. Thanks, I hereby withdraw my anodyne “hitting” suggestion.

  15. The paddle seems the peculiarly American implement for chastising children. The Christian Brothers supposedly favoured the belt.

    If Yeats is to be believed, the taws might have reached Scotland from Mieza.

  16. “took it out on”?

  17. David Eddyshaw says

    the taws might have reached Scotland from Mieza

    Though the philosopher seems to have been confused about the proper usage. I expect it’s a Greek thing.

  18. I’ve seen this word used a lot in the context of memories of 90’s raves in England. “Micky Finn/Carl Cox/Sasha used to cane this record.”

  19. Somehow it reminded me “It really whips the Llama’s ass!”, from what was the most popualt mp3 player.

  20. In elementary school in Virginia in the 1970s I was punished with a wooden ruler on the palm.

  21. PlasticPaddy says

    There seems to have been a sort of 20-year ripple effect starting from 1977(US Supreme Court decision) in banning corporal punishment, with a few anticipatory cases in the 1970s, one outlier (NJ: 1867!) and a few States remaining faithful to a “spare the rod and spoil the child” philosophy.

  22. When I went to school in the 70s and early 80s, formal corporal punishment already wasn’t usual anymore, but we had some older teachers who would do things like throwing chalk at unruly students that would probably get them disciplined nowadays.

  23. DM mentioned Tatar schools in Crimea (a Greek school actually, but the article is about Tatar schools) in a neighbouring thread. I was curious and read about several of them. In a certain Tatar school there is an exhibition of shildren drawings titled “I live in [a/the] world without violence”. Violence is symbolized by bombers and belts.

  24. John Cowan says

    (NJ: 1867!)

    I am very grateful that I grew up in New Jersey, because I do not know what I would have done if any school employee had struck me, but the consequences wouldn’t have been good for me. I never got into serious trouble, but I was certainly a chronic talk-out-of-turn-er.

    When Gale’s mother hit her with a plastic vacuum-cleaner hose, she grabbed the hose and pushed her mother hard against the wall: that was the last such occasion.

  25. Could we say in AmE slang that Nancy A. “pounded” the machines?

  26. Yes, that sounds about right.

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