Have Arms, Will Hug

By Ashleigh Brilliant   |   March 1, 2022

The activity called boxing may not have contributed much to the field of athletics, but it has certainly enriched our language. The fighting once took place outdoors, in a “ring” made by the encircling spectators. Indoors, that area became a roped square, which – however – is still called a “ring.” In many nations, it was once quite common for the participants to mutilate each other ferociously – but British nineteenth century concepts of “fair play” led to ordaining a set of rules, which were obligingly drawn up by a noble devotee of the game, the Marquis of Queensbury. 

One rule banned “hitting below the belt,” a term which now relates to anything unfair or unsportsmanlike. We also owe to boxing the ideas of entering the fray by tossing your hat into the ring, and of conceding defeat by throwing in your towel. But the towel tossing may be unnecessary, if you’ve already received a “knockout blow,” and been declared “out for the count” – traditionally ten seconds. On the other hand, the round may end before that count reaches ten, in which case you are “saved by the bell.” (Curiously, when I was at school, I always thought that expression referred only to the bell which ended a class period, and might indeed abruptly terminate some awkward classroom situation.)

And the fact that the fight now takes place in a roped square has given graphic meaning to the ideas of being “on the ropes” – but also of having a friend “in your corner.” And, since bare-knuckle combat went out when the Queensbury Rules came in, nobody these days needs to be told, when a combat reaches a certain vicious stage, what is meant by “taking the gloves off.”

Then we have the rather strange concept of a “clinch,” in which the opponents get so close to each other that they appear to be hugging, and each is incapable of striking a blow. At that point, the referee has to step in, and separate them.

But, outside of boxing, hugging itself can be a weapon – just ask any wrestler or grizzly bear. For some reason, in popular lore, the bear-hug became particularly associated with Russians, whose apparently friendly approach may disguise a hidden menace.

But, apart from these exceptions, the act of hugging, or, embracing, has a universally popular image – both in terms of warmth and friendship, and as a step towards sexual intimacy. Of course, it all goes back to our earliest experiences, of being held by our mother. Even when alone in bed, children like having something to hug, whether a teddy bear or some other doll, or simply just an extra pillow.

This whole concept of physical closeness is a mainstay of songwriters. In general, however, they don’t like the word “hug” – and even “embrace” has been reserved for more sophisticated melodies like “Embraceable You” (a collaborative creation of the brothers George and Ira Gershwin, who charmingly chose to rhyme “embraceable” with “irreplaceable”). But, far more commonly used is the word “hold,” which I myself could not resist, when I wrote, “Whatever else the Future holds, I hope it holds me holding you.”

Since our arms do most of the holding, and originally – most of the fighting too – the same word has been extended to apply to all weapons of war. Although it does seem quite a stretch from spears and shields to nuclear bombs. But it is that very word, “arms,” which begins one of the world’s most famous books, The Aeneid by Virgil. In that epic, Aeneus, a hero of the Trojan War, comes to what was then called Latium, where his arrival leads to the founding of Rome.

“Arms and the man, I sing, who first, from the coasts of Troy, 
exiled by fate, came to Italy.”

From this, George Bernard Shaw borrowed the title of his 1894 play, Arms and the Man – which ridicules war. (The hero is a soldier who carries chocolate, instead of ammunition. The play inspired a very successful operetta called The Chocolate Soldier, leading to various other adaptations.)

None of this, however, failed to prevent the outbreak of World War I, in 1914, largely the result of an “Arms Race” between the major European powers. Nowadays, the quest for “Arms Control” is still a leading international preoccupation.

After which, I can conclude only with my own armed offering: 

MY ARMS ARE ACHING TO HOLD YOU – Or is it arthritis?”


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