Historically Speaking

Making sense of it all!

Beat The Air

Posted by Elyse Bruce on August 1, 2011

When someone beats the air, it’s because he or she is fighting without accomplishing anything.  If you imagine someone’s arms flailing about at nothing, that’s a good literal representation of the figurative meaning of the phrase beat the air.

On July 17, 2006, the Boston Globe published a story by staff writer, Ron Borges in their Sports section about a boxing match between Fernando Vargas and Shane Mosley entitled, “Mosley Back In Picture: Vargas Fades Out.”  It began by reporting the following:

This rematch ended far more decisively than their meeting Feb. 25. Although Mosley stopped [Fernando Vargas] both times, the first fight ended when referee Joe Cortez stepped in to prevent Vargas from fighting the last two rounds because his left eye was swollen shut. When Cortez waved his hands, Vargas beat the air with his fists and insisted he would have beaten down the tiring Mosley had he been given the chance.

The Hartford Courant published a short news article entitled, “Let’s Talk It Over” on December 17, 1944 that stated in part:

How easy it is to pass the buck for our failures, to flounder through life blaming somebody else or even some thing else instead of ourselves. I’m thinking of Hannah, nearing 30. She has a job of a sort ….

It explains how desperate Hannah is to secure a husband and includes this bit of insight:

No wonder he always runs. What a pity no one tips Hannah off. What a shame for her to beat the air from one year to the next.

In New Zealand, the Marlborough Express published a news story on April 21, 1904 about then Opposition leader, Mr. Massey and how the electorate in New Zealand saw both him and his party.  The following is an excerpt of that news story.

It is too late in the day to go back to first principles to find a line of party cleavage.  And to tell the people that the present Government has fallen away from the lines of grace laid down by Mr. Ballance is to beat the air to no purpose.  The old lines are obliterated beyond all human power of redrawing, as Mr. Massey himself admitted when he contended that there is nothing to find fault with in the legislation of the Government, which is the party in power.

On November 5, 1841 the Public Ledger newspaper republished a story run in the Morning Herald entitled, “The Corn-Law Repealers And The Government.”  Lord Melbourne who was said to have “contempt for facts and realities” verbally attacked the Duke of Wellington for “simply stating a truth as palpable to everyone who will use his senses as the nose that completes and adorns his face, and on Saturday morning he was forthwith denounced as a monster and a modern Herod.”  The Duke of Wellington had angered Lord Melbourne because the Duke “announced a fact adverse to dishonest and unsuccessful agitation” and Lord Melbourne was now painting him as “cruel” because the Duke refused to deceive the public.  This comment was included in the story:

Unfortunately for the whig press it might “as well beat the  entrenchant air” as attack the Duke of Wellington; the character of the noble Duke is a national concern; and in whig abuse of his grace the people of England feel themselves insulted.

Going back several centuries to the days of the Apostles, the lower regions of the atmosphere was referred to as air as opposed to the higher regions of the sky which was referred to as the heavens (1 Thess. 4:17; Rev. 9:2; 16:17).  Ancient philosophers regarded air as an element since they didn’t know that air is essentially a mixture of oxygen and nitrogen with a small amount of carbon dioxide.  This is important to note as the expression beat the air is found in the Bible.  In fact, the earliest published version of the phrase beat the air is attributed to St. Paul.

I therefore so run, not as uncertainly; so fight I, not as one that beateth the air.  (1 Corinthians 9:26)

While it’s true that boxing was a sport that ancient Romans and ancient Greeks enjoyed, and while it’s true that there are accounts of boxers beating the air prior to a boxing match, Idiomation was unable to find an earlier published version of this phrase.

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