Harry (meanings)

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The letters harry (or Harry) have different meanings.

  • The verb 'to harry' means 'to persecute', 'to harass', 'to torment continuously'. Its original meaning was military: in offensive warfare, 'to harry' was 'to raid [in force]', and 'to despoil an entire countryside' - as in the harrying of the North - William the Conqueror's punitive destruction of much of the North of England.
      • There is a rare, obsolete, common noun 'a harry', labelling such an offensive action. Raids by a medieval army, harrying and despoiling the countryside, are often called a chevauchée (pronounced in the French way 'chev-oh-shay' IPA: /ʃɛv o ʃe/) by modern scholars.

In defensive action, 'to harry' meant 'to pursue a [superior] invading force with continual guerilla attacks, sniping etc.' - so that enemy strength was drained, without ever coming to open battle.

    • The hen harrier, Circus cyaneus, was named from its depredations on domestic poultry: its relatives, such as the marsh harrier Circus aeruginosus and the northern harrier Circus cyaneus hudsonius, are named from their relationship with it. This group of birds supplied the name for the VSTOL (Vertical and Short Take-off and Landing, or 'jump-jet') fighter aircraft, the Hawker-Siddeley Harrier, in its second generation the McDonnell Douglas AV-8B Harrier II, and the British Aerospace Sea Harrier.
    • The breed of dog called the harrier was bred (and named for) the hunting of hares. Harrier is also another word for a cross-country runner, and the word forms part of the name of many cross country running clubs. The origin of this use of the word lies in the 1830s, when English schoolboys devised a game, called Hares and Hounds, in which the hounds chased the hares. In 1867 a group of Londoners who went running to improve their physical fitness adopted the game and called themselves harriers.
  • The proper noun Harry (with a capital H) is an old conventional abbreviation for the forename Henry. For more detail, see Harry (name). As such, it gave rise to some set phrases. Various King Henrys gave their names, in the affectionate form, to some objects:
    • the harry noble (or Henry noble) was a gold coin minted in the reign of Henry VI - for more, see Noble (coin). There was also a silver coin, of much less value (4d., or four old pence), coined in the reign of Henry VIII called the Harry groat - "the old Harry groat is that which bears the king's head with a long face and long hair" (OED).
    • The Great Harry was the flagship of Henry VIII's fleet.
  • Some commoner (both 'more frequent' and 'less royal') uses of the name, should also be noted:
    • A form of quasi-euphemism in the later nineteenth and twentieth centuries was "By the Lord Harry...", which may have been an attempt to conceal "By the Lord", an oath in the form of 'taking the name of the Lord God in vain', by using one of the common names of the Devil instead.
    • Old Harry (also old Harry) was one of the names used for the Devil. "To play old Harry with [someone or something]" is 'to cause trouble to or with a person', 'to make mischief' or 'to play the devil with'.
    • A Flash Harry is a spiv - a loudly (ostentatiously) dressed man with questionable ethics and usually living on earnings that may not be legally acquired. (The flash in this colloquial expression is the adjective used in this connection since the late eighteenth century to mean 'dashing', showy', 'ostentatious'; which 'Harry' is meant is not clear. The nickname was applied famously by the orchestral conductor Sir Thomas Beecham (1879-1961) to his contemporary rival Sir Malcolm Sargent (1895-1967) (in full 'Sir (Harold) Malcolm Watts Sargent'), who was always elegantly dressed. When Beecham was told that Sargent was conducting a concert in Tokyo, he said, "Ah! Flash in Japan."
    • There was a slang habit, said by Ayto and Crofton (2009) to have "evolved from upper-class forces slang in the Second World War", current in undergraduate circles at Oxford University in the 1930s and in the Royal Navy thereafter, of forming an intensifier from adjectives, and, less often, nouns, by adding the suffix -ers to the word, and prefacing it with the meaningless Harry. To be "Harry starkers was to be 'stark [completely] naked'; Harry flakers, 'flaked out [~ very tired]' and Harry flatters for a dead calm [flat] sea were to be heard at sea. Harry Freeman, or Harry free-ers, was a gift.
      • Harry James is a twentieth century slang term for the (human) nose. Its origin is obscure.
  • Famous people called Harry include
    • Blind Harry, the most usual name for 'Harry the Minstrel' (fl. 1470-1492), the author who composed a verse Life of William Wallace, the champion of Scottish independence during the thirteenth century (in full The actis [~acts] and deidis [deeds] of the illuster [illustrious] and vailzeand [valiant] campioun [champion], Schir [Sir] William Wallace, knicht of Ellers). As a common noun it was also the name for a children's game now called 'Blind Man's Buff';
    • Harry S. Truman (President of the USA 1945-1953); Prince Harry, the second son of Prince Charles, the Prince of Wales (2013), known to some tabloid newspapers as Harry Potty in deference to their literacy, in reading popular fiction; and Harry Houdini (1874-1926) , a stage escapologist.
    • the fictional Harry Lime (the part played by Orson Welles in the film of The Third Man; Harry Potter, the 'Boy Wizard' in the eponymous novels by J.K.Rowling and films made from them; Harry Flashman, the hero of another series of novels, these giving an accurate (in background) and amusing slant on Victorian history by George MacDonald Fraser, supposedly the memoirs of the bully in Tom Brown's Schooldays; Dirty Harry, the violent policeman portrayed by Clint Eastwood in the films of that name.