Boehner’s Eking Along

Did John Boehner have John Clare’s 1829 ode on “Autumn” on the mind this afternoon when he said:

At a time when the economy is barely eking along, wages aren’t increasing, new jobs aren’t available, and what are we doing? [source]

The normal idiom in English is eking out, usually with “… a living” or “… an existence,” meaning to barely achieve something. The sense of “eke” here is OED2 3: “to supplement, supply the deficiencies of anything.” Boehner seems to have merged eking out […an existence] with getting along, or perhaps moving along, used metaphorically to mean something like “persisting,” “continuing to progress”.

eekThe original sense of eke, before it got fossilized in the idiom we still use, was “to increase, add to, lengthen,” (it’s distantly related to augment), which is how Smollet uses it: “Without eking or curtailing God’s precious truth.” John Clare also uses the word in “Autumn,” but in a way which could easily be interpreted as a verb for motion, especially slow or debilitated motion:

The crawling brook that ekes its weary speed
& struggles through the weeds
With faint & sullen brawls

And there’s some evidence that eking along is being reanalyzed as a motion verb more generally. From the Google Books corpus:

  • “We were quiet for a while, eking along the turnpike.” Robert B. Parker, Perish Twice (2001)
  • “And we’re eking along on ice- patched I-65 north toward Birmingham…” Marshall Chapman, They Came to Nashville (2010)
  • “…an elderly couple walked slowly down the path. … Mutual tethering, I thought as I watched them eke along.” Joseph Nye, The Power Game (2006).

As well as examples resembling Boehner’s usage more closely:

  • “Production was, in truth, just barely eking along, but it was not for lack of willingness at the Philadelphia Mint.” Hell to Pay (2011)
  • “the family eking along on his disability and his mother’s small salary as a school nurse” Toni Jones, No Secrets in Spandex (2012)
  • “Literary science fiction has a far more limited market, eking along in the shadow of Star Wars.” J-C Dunyach et al. The Night Orchid (2004)

And my personal favourite:

  • “It turned out he was the dean of literature of a sort of underground university that had been eking along for centuries” L. Ron Hubbard, Battlefield Earth (2011 edition).

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