Date: Thu, 23 Apr 1998 11:06:41 -0400
From: Jesse T Sheidlower
Subject: Re: banshee workers

Larry Horn wrote:

> 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?

In HDAS I we have a (small) entry for "like a banshee," with citations for
"comes on like a banshee," "party like a banshee," and the Safire examples.
We felt that anything with "scream" or "howl" should be considered a
transferred application of the usual behavior of banshees, but that these
others should be considered slang.

I think that the "work like a banshee" variant is more likely to exemplify
this loose use of "like a banshee" than to be a mistake for " a
beaver," but that's just MHO.

Jesse Sheidlower