Date: Thu, 23 Apr 1998 10:57:27 -0400
From: Larry Horn
Subject: banshee workers

One of my undergraduate students chose to critique an entry from an old
(1984) William Safire book, _I Stand Corrected_, that was prompted by an
assurance from Rhode Island Senator Claiborne Pell that he and his
colleagues were "working like banshees to get all the material we can".
Safire and some of his respondents assumed that this was a malapropism for
"working like beavers", since banshees are, to quote of them (the readers,
not the banshees), "female spirits who keen, or wail, in Gaelic folklore to
announce the impending death of someone", and not otherwise known to be
particularly industrious. Another reader suggested an influence from the
presumably taboo "working like coolies", which would have the right meaning
and at least the right final vowel (unlike "beavers"). But it appears that
this was not necessarily a nonce usage by the Senator, since another reader
wrote in from New Jersey to say that her husband used the same expression.
Nexis shows various uses involving dancing, whooping, screaming, howling,
fighting, shopping, and even boffing like banshees, but none with working.
Anyone else familiar with this variant?