Slighting the Walls.

This year I received a superb Father’s Day gift (thanks, S&L!), Colin McEvedy’s Cities of the Classical World: An Atlas and Gazetteer of 120 Centres of Ancient Civilization. I’ve been making my way through it very slowly; with a page or two on each city, it’s an ideal book to pick up from the coffee table when one doesn’t feel like plunging into something that would take up more of one’s day, and I always get something new from it, most recently an unexpected usage of a familiar word: in the entry for Benevento, McEvedy writes: “In 542, Totila, king of the Ostrogoths, retook the town and, to make sure it could not side against him again, slighted its walls.” Did what to its walls?! A visit to the OED showed me that this was in fact the original sense of the verb:

1.transitive. To make smooth or level. Obsolete.

a1300 Leuedis,..Quen yee yow-self sua slight and slike, Yee sai þat men you wille besuike.
Cursor Mundi 28026

1613 You must not at any time sleight or smooth your Corne, but after a shower of Raine.
G. Markham, English Husbandman: 1st Part Former Pt. vi. sig. D4

1620 After your ground is sowne and harrowed, you shall then clotte it, sleight it, and smooth it.
G. Markham, Farewell to Husb. (1625) 50

2. To level with the ground; to raze (a fortification, etc.). Obsolete exc. Historical (common c1640–80).

1640–4 That the works may be slighted, and the places dismantled.
in J. Rushworth, Historical Collections: Third Part (1692) vol. I. 368

1667 When the Works were about half slighted,..came seven or eight hundred French Horse.
W. Temple, Letter to Lord Holles in Works (1720) vol. II. 37

1976 It was standard practice to slight the defenses once the site was left.
E. N. Luttwak, Grand Strategy of Roman Empire ii. 57

1977 Mrs Barbara Castle shattered the political confidence of consultants as effectively as Henry II slighted his opponents’ strongholds.
British Medical Journal 24 December 1619/1

The modern sense, “To treat with indifference or disrespect; to pay little or no attention or heed to; to disregard, disdain, ignore,” goes back to the 17th century (at least as witnessed by the OED entry, which is from 1912). AHD includes the old sense as “4. To raze or level the walls of (a castle or other fortification),” so one is still expected to be aware of it, and I’m glad I am.


  1. Still not fully used to seeing OED quotations in 2DWB style.

  2. A cognate of German schlecht. I had no idea.

  3. J.W. Brewer says

    I’m usually pretty good at orthographic distinctions between homophones, but I have recently learned that I never mastered slight/sleight, probably because I had comparatively little occasion to use the latter for many years until my nine-year-old recently got really into learning and demonstrating card tricks, forcing me to learn that the relevant phrase isn’t “slight of hand.” OTOH, wiktionary assures me that although it’s now “obsolete,” using “slight” as a variant spelling for “sleight” was once a perfectly legitimate option, employed by the likes of Edmund Spenser.

  4. J.W. Brewer says

    I think the standard (quite possibly only?) source for what happened to the walls of Benevento on that particular occasion is Procopius, in Book VII of the History of the Wars. It struck me that an old-fashioned translation might well have used already-archaic English lexemes like “slighted” in this sense, but the early 20th-century one I could find online (by H.B. Dewing, 1882-1956), just says that Totila “with no trouble won the strong city of Beneventum, the walls of which he razed to the ground, in order that any army coming from Byzantium might not be able, by using this strong base, to cause trouble for the Goths.”

    So either that wasn’t McEvedy’s source, or he added his own archaisms for flavor. Procopius’ verb FWIW was καθεῖλεν, which means something (depending on context) like “took down, pulled down, destroyed, deposed.” When Mary says in Luke 1:52 “He hath put down the mighty from their seats,” that’s the same verb.

  5. Still not fully used to seeing OED quotations in 2DWB style.

    You and me both (but what’s 2DWB?). But it’s perhaps the least of my complaints about the vile new website.

    So either that wasn’t McEvedy’s source, or he added his own archaisms for flavor.

    I’m pretty sure it’s the latter; it’s a very flavorful word.

  6. 2DWB = the second edition, now in the works, of the Grimms’ German dictionary.

  7. Maybe it’s not slighting in this archaic sense: “Call yourselves walls, do ya? I’ve seen scarier looking hedges! My dog could jump over you, and he’s 14 years old with a leg missing! I bet you shiver and shake when the wind blows cold!” And then the walls subside out of shame and ignominy.

  8. David Eddyshaw says

    There is a Biblical precedent in Nehemiah 4:3:

    Now Tobiah the Ammonite was by him, and he said, Even that which they build, if a fox go up, he shall even break down their stone wall.

  9. J.W. Brewer says

    Now I’m idly curious whether the orders to slight the walls were given in Gothic or in some version of Vulgar Latin or maybe in a mix as they worked their way down the chain of command from Totila.

    Here’s a nice depiction of the walls of Florence being slighted (also by the command of Totila):

  10. That is nice; they come tumbling down quite picturesquely.

    I presume “dstruggere” in the file name is a typo, but I like it.

  11. s.b. distruggere. Also, don’t build your city walls out of Legos.

  12. 1977 Mrs Barbara Castle … Henry II slighted his opponents’ strongholds.
    British Medical Journal

    That’s a bizarre comparison even for the BMJ, even for 1977.

    Henry II “rid me of this troublesome priest” OK. Opponents’ strongholds what?

    I’m reminded of Vic Feather’s valedictory speech upon retiring from the TUC. In Barnsley, m’lud, we speak of little else.

    My mother always totally lauded Babbs Castle: she called a spade a spade — especially to the toffs in the Medical hierarchy.

  13. Here’s the context:

    Any future historian looking at the NHS is likely to see the 1970s as the decade of the decline of the hospital service. Mrs Barbara Castle shattered the political confidence of consultants as effectively as Henry II slighted his opponents’ strongholds. Next came the war of attrition in which the hospital unions undermined medical authority, a long, drawn-out and covert process helped by the administrators’ appeasing tactics which kept as many incidents hidden as possible. Finally, freedom itself was eroded, not only by the clamour of numerous pressure groups and watchdog associations but also by the intrusion of an ombudsman into areas where he had neither knowledge nor competence.

    Appeasement 1977 style [leading article]. BMJ 1977; 2: 1619.

  14. J.W. Brewer says

    By 1977, Mr. Castle had become Lord Castle, although apparently it was perceived as awkward for someone in the Commons to be known as “Lady Castle” so she eschewed the title (waiting patiently for her own eventual life peerage). But they could have gone with “The Rt Hon” to avoid the “Mrs” w/o seeming overly familiar.

  15. @AntC: There were quite a few “adulterine” fortifications built during the Anarchy, although a great many of them may have had only earthen or wooden palisade walls. After the Treaty of Wallingford ended the active fighting, Stephen started arranging to have the unsanctioned forts slighted, and Henry Curtmantle continued the policy after he inherited the throne a year later. The demolition of the adulterine fortifications (or at least their defensive walls) was a natural measure to eliminate bastions around which future insurrections might be based, in those early years of Henry’s reign, before the fortuitous deaths of all his relatives with potential rival claims.

  16. Thanks @Brett, I don’t need the historical reference explained. It’s the readers of the editorial who do.

    Even in 1977, who amongst readers of BMJ editorials would know of fortifications demolished in C12th? There was no internet. The article gives no background from which a reader can reconstruct whatever “slighted his opponents’ strongholds” is about. It’s just toffs being toffs for the sake of being toffs.

    The only thing wrong with Babbs’ oversight of the NHS was she could never be ruthless enough/still had to stuff the consultants’ mouths with gold [Bevan].

  17. Kate Bunting says

    The usage is reasonably familiar to English Civil War enthusiasts; as OED says, it was ‘(common c1640–80)’.

  18. Jen in Edinburgh says

    Readers of the BMJ in 1977 would have been at school in what, the 40s or 50s? Is that too late for an old-fashioned king-by-king history syllabus?

    But as long as you know the word slighted (which I do, and I can’t imagine I’m a toff by Ant’s definition), the article tells you everything else that you need to know – that Henry II did it, and did it effectively.

  19. David Eddyshaw says

    Nye Bevan actually stuffed our mouths with gold. Ah me, those were the days …

    Nowadays, the government just has the Daily Mail tell its readers that they have stuffed our mouths with gold instead. Admittedly this is cheaper.

  20. J.W. Brewer says

    It took me a while to figure out that this is a peculiar UKian sense of “consultant.” The U.S. health-care system is surrounded by consultants sucking up gold, but they are not in the same line of work as David E.

  21. Same here! For those in our boat, a definition from this handy page:

    Consultants are senior doctors that have completed full medical training in a specialised area of medicine and are listed on the GMC’s specialist register. They have clinical responsibilities and administrative responsibilities in managing SAS and junior doctors.

    They usually work in hospitals or community settings.

    After graduating from medical school, it takes around six to eight years to become a consultant.

  22. J.W. Brewer says

    I take it there’s some squiggles that makes it not purely synonymous with AmEng “specialist” (when said of a physician), but I suspect the additional nuances arise mostly from the particular bureaucratic structure of the NHS.

  23. Jen in Edinburgh says

    Wikipedia believes that the US equivalent is ‘attending physician’. Consultants predate the NHS, though – I suspect NHS hospital structure was taken over more or less wholesale from the big ‘voluntary’ hospitals.

  24. J.W. Brewer says

    “Attending physician” is one of those AmEng medical jargon phrases I’ve heard and read but I frankly have no idea what it really means. As a patient, I just think of the world of MD’s as separated between generalists (“PCP’s” is one of the new initialisms, although it should not be confused with the unlawful drug with the same initials) and specialists (who are in turn divided into numerous specialties and subspecialties — even within “eye specialists” I used a different fellow for my retina issues than my cataract issues). Sometimes the only way to tell you’re dealing with a specialist is a higher co-pay. ($40 v. $20 for me although others may face steeper price differentials.)

  25. David Eddyshaw says

    You can be a specialist without being a consultant in the UK system. Leaving aside the obvious fact that senior trainees are already specialists in the normal sense of the word, there is a formal post of Associate Specialist, which is basically made up of people who either weren’t able to or didn’t want to get to be consultants but still have permanent non-trainee posts.

    It’s actually not a bad option, as the pay is pretty good, it’s a permanent post, and you avoid a lot of the administrative crap that comes with being a consultant. Indeed, it’s such a good option that our wonderful government has abolished the post, so that existing Associate Specialists continue as such until they retire, but you can no longer be appointed as one.

    The UK hospital career grades when I were a lad went (in increasing order of cosmic importance): houseman, senior house officer, registrar, senior registrar, consultant.

    Houseman was what you were in the year after qualifying: typically six months general medicine, six months general surgery. Everybody had to do that. My medical house job was easily the worst job I have ever done* in terms of sheer physical exhaustion and mental stress. That was pretty usual …

    Senior house officer is the lowest grade in most actual hospital specialties. It was usual to do several different specialties (I did orthopaedics, what Americans call ER, and neurosurgery, and I took a year out to teach anatomy, again a common thing for aspiring surgeons to do then) before starting in the lowest rank in the specialty you actually intended to continue with. After that you progressed to registrar if the bosses liked you, and in those remote days you worked for your higher postgraduate exams during your registrar post, assuring that all of your free time was devoted to studying. Once you got through those (multiple attempts usually being needed) you could apply for senior registrar posts: that was the big career bottleneck, and the many who fell off the ladder at that point ended up as Associate Specialists (if they were lucky, or MPs if not.) Senior registrars were often in post for many years (and often became very experienced) but could be confident of getting to be a consultant eventually. Many were in no great hurry, because it often involved a significant pay drop, because consultants, unlike juniors, are not paid “overtime.” (“Overtime” was actually paid at significantly lower rates than nine-to-five, but you typically did fifty-plus hours a week of it, so it mounted up anyway.)

    In the 1990’s the system was fairly radically reformed, with the registrar and senior registrar grades merged into a “specialist registrar” grade, in principle fixed at five years. You have to have all your postgrad exams completed to be even eligible to start on it. Five years is not in fact long enough to train a consultant adequately**, so it is virtually universal to do one or more “fellowships” of a year or more after theoretically completing your training in order to be actually up to coping with a consultant post.

    * And in my time, I have (literally) shovelled shit all day in a sewage works and worked as a payments clerk where you were so busy that you could not deal with customer complaints, no matter how justified or important, because you would fall behind in the routine work so far that you’d never recover. Both a doddle compared with being a medical houseman in 1979.

    ** This is especially the case in surgical specialties, where the downside of limiting the hours worked is that trainees get much less hands-on experience than they did before the reforms.

  26. David Eddyshaw says

    You have to have all your postgrad exams completed to be even eligible to start on it

    Wrong, sorry. You have to have the first part completed: the final bits you still have to work for in your own time while working full-time as a hospital doctor. Fortunately, that’s pretty much a sinecure …

    US doctors (I gather) work even harder when training than we did in the antediluvian days that I was tearily reminiscing about. But I gather that they eventually get quite well paid …

  27. the article tells you everything else that you need to know – that Henry II did it, and did it effectively

    A good analogy uses X, which you already know, to explain Y, which you need to know. If you don’t know X then the analogy is useless as such. If you know Y you may be able to infer X, but that’s a distracting irrelevance. I may have mentioned before how most of what I know of baseball comes from running Stephen Jay Gould’s baseball/evolution analogies in reverse.

  28. In American medical parlance, attending physician (usually shorten to just “attending” except in official documents) is a term specific to hospitals (as opposed to doctors’ offices; clinic is an imprecise term, for an institution that could be organized either like a hospital, except smaller, or like an office) The attendings are the permanent physician staff of a hospital. Most of them do not work at the hospital full time, but see patients mostly at offices elsewhere (although that could be in a building physically connected to the hospital or all the way across town), visiting their patients at the hospital(s) once or twice a day. The nature of these hospital visits obviously depends a lot on what field of medicine a doctor is in; surgeons see patients before or after surgery at their offices for maybe half the day and spend the other half actually performing operations and seeing the patients in recovery; pediatricians spend most of their hospital rounds seeing the newborns, both the healthy ones who are there for their first several days and the more difficult cases in the intensive care nursery.

    The reason for the attending terminology is hospitals (including certain types of clinics) have a lot of trainees: medical students, interns (although that is a deprecated term now), residents, and physicians doing fellowships. The attendings are responsible for supervising and training the younger clinicians, although the structure of the relationship naturally changes with each of the junior career stages. Outside a hospital setting, there are a lot fewer trainees around, and there is not the same kind of ordered rank structure. In an office practice, seniority is typically more related to the business side of things (obviously something that is not a factor in Britain). The senior physicians are likely partners in the business or hold equivalent status under a nonprofit employer; the lower-level doctors are still fully licensed physicians, perhaps with fewer board certifications, who may be hired on short-term contracts, or on a semipermanent basis with the expectation that they may eventually join the partnership.

  29. @J.W. Brewer You just taught me that sleight isn’t pronounced like sleigh + t. Cheers! Hopefully I’ll remember it.

  30. John Cowan says

    The UK hospital career grades when I were a lad

    In accordance with the American habit of numbering things, they were intern, first-year resident, second-year resident ,,,, In some specialties this could go up to fifth or perhaps even sixth. Since then, the word intern has been deprecated, as JWB says, apparently to avoid confusion with internist ‘specialist in internal medicine’, so we now have first-, second-, third-year resident….

    Now the number of years of residency is dictated by the specialty, with a minimum of three (internist, pediatrician, family practitioner), a minimum of five for surgical specialties (e.g. ophthalmological surgeon; there are non-surgical ophthalmologists who require only four), up to seven years for neurosurgeons.

    Houseman was what you were in the year after qualifying: typically six months general medicine, six months general surgery.

    There were rather more rotations for interns / first-year residents, with the list growing over time: internal medicine, general surgery, pediatrics, psychiatry, obstetrics and gynecology, family medicine, and neurology. Much of this has moved to the third year of medical school (in the fourth year, one has more choices); consequently, doctors now take their licensure exams some time in the first year of residency.

    If you have a (typically foreign) M.D.-equivalent degree and have done clinical rotations afterwards, you can be granted an M.D. by examination. American D.O. degrees are treated as M.D.-equivalent and require no additional examination. Canadian M.D. and D.O. degrees are also equivalent. Board certification, which is specific to a specialty and is optional but highly desirable, is granted by examination at the end of residency. Licensure is a state matter, so there is some variability.

    US doctors (I gather) work even harder when training than we did in the antediluvian days that I was tearily reminiscing about.

    Residents used to work every other night and every other weekend, averaging 140 hours a week with a maximum of 32 hours in a single shift. Because of concerns over sleep deprivation, in 2003 this was reduced to 80 hours a week with a maximum shift of 24 hours. However, it is conceded that these rules are widely ignored; consequently, no great improvements in either mortality/morbidity or physician mental health have shown up.

    Residents in general are horribly abused. They are assigned hospitals by computer matching and they cannot leave them for another hospital (Congress exempted this rule from what limited antitrust law we now have). In places where overtime is paid, it actually makes overload worse, because it is cheaper to assign a resident to a patient. What they need is a union. (The Wobblies stand ready, as always.)

    But I gather that they eventually get quite well paid …

    That very much depends on specialty. Cardiac surgeons, yes; family practitioners, not so much. Technically, all doctors are specialists, but there are general flavors of the above-mentioned rotations: one may be a general internist, a general surgeon, … plus a few special cases like lifestyle medicine, whose practitioners primarily advise rather than treating.

    The attendings are the permanent physician staff of a hospital.

    Quite so. The essence of being an attending is that you bear ultimate responsibility (modulo administrative interference or a court order) for some set of patients, and that each patient has exactly one attending.

    You just taught me that sleight isn’t pronounced like sleigh + t.

    It is rather sly + t; sleight-of-hand is a sly trick.

  31. David Eddyshaw says

    Residents used to work every other night and every other weekend, averaging 140 hours a week

    All my senior house officer jobs were like that* (sc. every other night and every other weekend, on top of eight-to-five-ish every weekday.) Except when the other SHO was on annual leave, when it was 168 hours a week.

    This was actually much better than my medical house job, however, which was a mere 90 hour week, because I generally got much more sleep in my SHO jobs. In my first house job, I usually got about two hours sleep when I was on call, quite often none. (You had to go to work the next day just the same.) After a three-day weekend with no sleep at all, I once made a serious prescribing error and nearly killed someone (he did in fact die, but he turned out to have another condition which would have killed him anyway. In those days, that was enough …)

    UK punters may be relieved to hear that things have improved since then (my old job was being done by two separate people even five years later.)

    * Now I think of it, not the A and E (ER) job. That was shifts. (Twelve hours.) Luxury …

  32. Bruno van Wayenburg says

    In Dutch, ‘slechten’ is a slightly (!) old fashioned word with this meaning, usually metaphorically as in ‘grenzen, muren slechten’ (slighting boundaries, walls) but also literally (‘verdedigingslinies’/defence lines). Related to ’slecht’ – bad, which originally meant ‘even, low, smooth’

  33. Lars Mathiesen (he/him/his) says

    Danish has slette = ‘erase’ and udslette = ‘destroy’, more or less. Not old fashioned at all.

    Swedish still has slät = ‘smooth’, but radera and utradera as the verbs in current usage. (Both Da and Sw also have senses of ‘bad quality’ and just ‘bad’ for the adjective, but only Sw has kept the ‘smooth’ sense. I had to look it up to be sure that Danish slet was cognate with the Swedish one, not least because it has a short vowel in Danish).

  34. David Marjanović says

    Interestingly, this is schleifen in German, but regular, unlike the irregular one which means “grind ~ polish” (e.g. with sandpaper). Only used of castles and city walls, i.e. not very often anymore.

    I may have mentioned before how most of what I know of baseball comes from running Stephen Jay Gould’s baseball/evolution analogies in reverse.

    I have, in any case, repeatedly mentioned how I now understand evolution but still don’t understand baseball.

  35. Lars Mathiesen (he/him/his) says

    sløjfe. Probably through the usual suspect and somehow homonymous with a bow tie.

  36. David Marjanović says


  37. Andrej Bjelaković says

    Serbian has šlajfovati (Croatian, predictably, šlajfati), with the original meaning of grind/polish, with which I’d been unfamiliar until just now, and with the derived meaning of spinning/slipping wheels (you learn this pretty early on if you’re a boy surrounded by other, often car-obsessed boys).

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