A Non-Starter for Peace
A non-starter in modern use is, as the Oxford English Dictionary confirms, a thing or person which doesn’t start in a race or other kind of competition or test. It is a form which was taken originally from horse-racing, as in the very first use of this word in 1865 which the modern OED attests. If the other horses start, a non-starter is left far behind, never having left the point at which the race begins. This was, as history proves, a sense which was easily extended to a range of other domains. Nevertheless, the first edition of the OED, in progress as the First World War began, had been entirely silent on this word and its use. The relevant section, which covered words in Niche to Nywe, had been published in September 1907. While it provided an extensive section on words with non-, non-starter did not appear.
For Clark, tracking words in wartime, the use of non-starter in the Star on 5th September 1914 was therefore doubly arresting – first for the appearance of what seemed an unrecorded form, but secondly for the quite literally eye-catching statement in which it was deployed:
“A non-starter – The Kaiser, who was nominated only two months ago as the next recipient of the Nobel peace prize”.
This was, by early September 1914, a non-starter indeed. Kaiserism had by that point firmly come to suggest war not peace, being widely used alongside militarism and the politics of aggression. The Scotsman on September 3rd provides a good example; here on-going conflict is seen, from the Allies’ side, as a united effort in “fighting Kaiserism or militarism”. Still more prominent were images of the Kaiser as a ‘modern Attila and his army’, here in the Scotsman on Tuesday 8th September 1914. Similar was reference to the ‘New Attila’ in the Scotsman on 17th September 1914. This linked modern history to another unlikely contender for a peace prize. As the article stated:
‘Fourteen hundred years ago Attila and his Huns desolated Belgium, Holland, and Gaul, and then crossed the Alps to Northern Italy’.
As it added, the historical continuities seemed plain:
’now another Attila, at the head of a horde of barbarian Huns, and he and they are following in the footsteps of their ancient predecessors, burning classic cities and peaceful villages, and murdering indiscriminately men, women, and children, trampling the latter ruthlessly under their horses’ hoofs’.
The language was that of outrage and atrocity, and wilful depredation.
In terms of the history of non-starter and its representation, Clark’s evidence would, in this instance, be read by the OED in the scrutiny given to his notebooks around 1930. It was, however, rejected; n the 1933 Supplement to the OED, nouns such as non-flam (‘That is not inflammable’) are clearly inserted in preference. While a short entry does appear in the second edition of the OED in 1989, this contained no evidence in British English before1932, and even this referred to the more literal sense of the term — rather than the metaphorical one Clark had spotted.
Even in 2003, in a draft revision of the third edition of the Dictionary, the first metaphorical use of non-starter was traced only to 1934. Yet, rather than being a post-war locution, its use had, of course, been there all along in Clark’s carefully assembled lexicon of war-time English. Only in December 2009– and almost a century after Clark first recorded the form,– did Clark’s evidence, and the pithy citation on peace and the Kaiser in the context of war, finally make its way into the OED where it now appears in prominent first position under non-starter in the sense: ‘A person or thing that is unlikely to succeed or be effective, or that is to be rejected or discounted at the outset; an impracticable idea’.
If the Kaiser hence proved a resounding non-starter for peace, the Star’s observation proved, at least in terms of language, a point of significant change, while also confirming Clark’s good eye for language on the move.
** See “non-starter”, OED Online.Oxford University Press, September 2014. Web. 20 September 2014.