Twenty years ago – almost to the day, in October 2002 – I wrote a silly piece of short fiction purporting to be an investigation by an unnamed scholar of an idiomatic phrase. I never did anything with it. It came back to mind recently and I looked again at it. I still think it’s funny, as a look at the vagaries of phrasal etymology but also at a certain kind of literary scholar. So here it is, unrevised. I hope it amuses.
I Can Crack My Tangle
by James Harbeck
Considerable controversy surrounds the origins and meaning of the phrase “I can crack my tangle.” As everyone knows, this phrase – one of the most commonly used in North America today – means, depending on the person using it, “I am very happy,” “I am quite unhappy,” or “I have no idea whether I’m happy or unhappy, but it must be something.” This triple meaning has caused numerous arguments; the use of the phrase has in fact come to be something of a mischief in certain circles, and yet it persists in being used more than only a few phrases in the English language. Further, there is a significant contingent maintaining that the phrase is incorrectly rendered and should be given as “I can’t crack my tangle,” or “I correct my dangle,” or “Eyes can crack might’s angle,” or “I can croak ‘my angel,’” or any of several other possibilities. Unfortunately, even those advocating a specific usage often differ on which meaning it should have and what its origins are. Given these difficulties, I have taken it as incumbent upon myself, as a scholar of note, to clarify once and for all the sources and suitable usage of this phrase.
Allow me first to dispose of a few purported origins bruited about by the ignorant and irresponsible. The most common one – and one which I have personally received in forwarded “did you know” emails at least eight times as of this writing – is that in medieval England there was a competition every year, either at Mayday or at Michaelmas, in which young men either were presented with a knot or had to tie one, and the one who untied the knot first or made a knot that couldn’t be untied would win the favours or the hand in marriage of the May queen or the prettiest eligible girl in the village or the town weaver’s daughter. “Crack,” by this account, could mean either the figurative sense of “solve” or a more literal meaning whereby a hardy young man, perhaps inspired by the sword-wielding example of Hercules, used his fist or hammer to crack the knot in two rather than untying it. By way of explanation it is proposed that the knot was shellacked or – and this is an especially amusingly stupid story – drenched in eggs to symbolize fertility, and the unwise ones would try to untie it while wet but the wise one would let it dry and become brittle and thereupon crack it like an egg, within which perhaps was his beauteous reward.
The principal problem with this story is that weavers’ daughters are anything but great prizes, whatever they may seem when twenty-one years of age. Beyond that is the contradictory nature of the story and the fact that there is no evidence anywhere of any such competition occurring – in fact, the earliest version of this story seems to be in an email sent from a Hotmail account in 1997. As well, it is more than a little unlikely that anyone would wish to view with approbation such an obvious metaphor for the decline of youthful fecundity and an apparent recommendation of waiting until one’s partner is old and hardened before cracking the egg, i.e., having children.
It is also not the case that the phrase comes from the Irish phrase gan craic i mo cheangal, which means “without fun in my ties/connections/weaving.” Aside from the fact that this is an oddly unidiomatic phrase, and an incomplete sentence at that, and aside from the fact that the Irish pronunciation sounds rather more like “gone cracky moe cangle,” which at most might have converted to “gone cracky, my candle,” and even though this origin would explain the dual nature of the expression (since “ceangal” might also suggest marriage or relations, and a person divorced might appreciate the dissolution of the “ceangal” or even experience considerable happiness at the failure of the ex-spouse to have any fun after unjustly and summarily leaving her hard-working husband because he was “too boring”), there is simply no evidence to support this as an origin, amusing as the picture of a lamenting Irish weaver might be.
Other purported derivations of this phrase are, if anything, more risible than the above, and they hardly need addressing at all, except to say that the printed record gives no support whatever to them. Any person with good breeding and an intellect worthy of consideration would never say “I correct my dangle,” let alone imagine that such a mundane problem might be cause for joy or distress; “I can croak, ‘my angel’” is senselessly saccharine, reeking of the inane romanticism that leads naïve young men to marry inappropriate women and, later, to long senselessly for their return when they have wantonly strayed; and “eyes can crack might’s angle” simply sounds like a bad lyric from an unjustifiably popular rock-n-roll group. No, we must turn to the historical record to untangle this knot and crack this problem.
The earliest printed record of this phrase is in fact an instance from 1842, in Aubrey Whitsun-Ellis’s great novel Joan, or the Last Opportunity. In this novel, an essential part of any truly well-read gentleman’s library and much to be recommended for its tale of the fruitlessness of expecting too much from a woman gone to seed (or, perhaps, gone away from it), the hero, Endel Hughes, exclaims to his friends upon reading the letter from his wife, who had run away either in shame or in wantonness, “Well! —I can crack my tangle! —I do say, but there’s a sort— Hah! What say you fellows to this?” Whereupon the famous gust of wind blows the letter into the fire, and his friends can say nothing, not having had the opportunity to read it. Hughes, for his part, then lapses into a silence that lasts the remaining three pages of the book and, presumably, for some time after, although one would hope that he comes out of it as a disappointed man should, relying on the strength of his character.
This instance, which is the likely source of the phrase’s popularity, has been much debated by English scholars, who, as usual, are entirely out to lunch on the matter, being ignorant of both linguistics and humanity. Did his wife have the child she was ashamed of never having borne him? And if so, was it by him? It is clear enough that she would not have written to him if she were simply going to stay away; a woman who contacts her abandoned husband obviously has some desire for reuniting, even if he no longer wishes to have her. A person who denies this has had no experience of real life. But in the context of the book, the only reason for her writing him would be to bring news of a child either born or miscarried, since she could not possibly go back to him without some resolution of this central issue.
Thus he is receiving news of a birth of a child, which could be his or someone else’s, and he could never know which (and perhaps she is only contacting him to tell him she desires financial support for this questionable offspring and to claim that she still doesn’t want him in her life, even though he has been the sole stable influence she has ever had), or else the miscarriage of the same, which would be either a loss of his last chance to have a child or revenge on his wife and her unnamed lover. In either case, Hughes clearly cannot know whether he is happy or unhappy, although he knows it must be one or the other. (In the end, if his wife stays away from him, he will know which it must be or may as well be treated as being, as he is depredated of his income and self-respect by this withered crone, once a pretty girl but now, though the book does not say as much, clearly past her prime in every way and thus much at fault in the whole matter, irresponsible woman that she is, claiming boredom with the only man who could raise her from her unspecified humble origins – likely the ill-sown seed of a weaver or some other ignoble tradesman.) Thus the phrase clearly takes on the ambivalent meaning, with a leaning towards unhappiness in the long term, and those who use it to mean they are quite happy are engaging in an entirely unwarranted act of interpretation of a book they are clearly not qualified to comment on.
But whence did Whitsun-Ellis get the phrase? He uses it as though it were already common currency at the time. And indeed it appears commonly enough in the years after the publication of Joan, principally among those literate enough to have read and appreciated the book. The supposition among linguistic scholars has been that it was a local phrase, perhaps from Yorkshire (although its subsequent use appears almost entirely among educated gentlemen of southern England), taken up and first cast in print by the redoubtable, resourceful and erudite Whitsun-Ellis. I have, however, at great expense and personal effort, finally found the original holograph of Joan, from which the typesetters set the book.
It will be remembered that the book was published posthumously – Whitsun-Ellis died immediately after its completion, perhaps fully happy at having written such a masterpiece, perhaps completely unhappy with the world he portrayed so accurately. The typesetters would thus not have had recourse to Whitsun-Ellis to revise misreadings of his often harried and cryptic handwriting. And on the select page, we find a very interesting scrawl. It could be read as “I can crack my tangle” by an unintelligent typesetter working in a late-night rush. But other more semantically coherent readings are also easily found. A closer look might suggest “Joan carried my child,” as indeed I read it at first glance. But this is too plain and does not challenge the intellect of the reader as Whitsun-Ellis was wont to do. Upon analysis of the letter forms, which are shaky and suggest writing on an unsteady surface, perhaps in a moving coach, I have concluded that it must be “Joan does not trifle.” The following sentence may also be revised: for the incomplete ejaculation “there’s a sort,” read “there’s a tart,” which is a natural first reaction to the news that a man’s wife has born a child after having left him some eight or so months previously.
Naturally, in keeping with the greatness of the author, these readings do not change the moving uncertainty of the work. We are still left hanging: is it that she will return to him, and so is not trifling with his affections, or that she is making unreasonable demands on him, and so not trifling in her brazenness? He seems to be leaning towards the second option by calling her a tart in the next breath. And, of course, human experience shows that he is right, and that as the child grows it will become apparent that it bears no resemblance to him and probably looks suspiciously like her second cousin. But it is the nature of the great to rise above such circumstances.
We thus see a notable etymological tangle decisively cracked, and we learn that the great Whitsun-Ellis does not trifle with us. And although I do not expect that the ordinary man in the street will forever eschew inane linguistic fantasies, I feel confident that the acute, mature and well-bred intellect will feel at last satisfied and amply corrected and will know “Joan does not trifle.”