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Picking oakum

(13 Posts)
Greta Sat 17-Oct-20 12:38:28

I came across this expression recently; never heard it before. I've looked it up and found it quite interesting.

I read it in a book first published in 1948. The context has nothing to do with workhouses/prisons. A woman has very difficult problem to solve and she says: ”I have been picking oakum for the last week”.

Do you ever pick oakum?

mary51 Sat 17-Oct-20 12:42:36

Never picked it. Just looked it up. Perhaps she's been looking at the problem from all angles trying to make sense of it all or find a solution hence unravelling of threads etc.

trisher Sat 17-Oct-20 12:46:54

I find it best not to. It takes too long, it damages you and the results are not really all that use. The time and effort involved isn't worth it.

FannyCornforth Sat 17-Oct-20 12:51:39

'Picking oakum' was to pull apart ship's ropes, and as you say it took place in Workhouses.
The resulting oakum was used to stuff mattresses.
The ropes were very tough and covered in all manner of stuff.
It was very painful work.

FannyCornforth Sat 17-Oct-20 12:52:57

That's how I understand it, anyway!

GagaJo Sat 17-Oct-20 12:54:13

Yes, Fanny and it was terrible on the hands. Open wounds, infections.

FannyCornforth Sat 17-Oct-20 12:54:16

Isn't trisher's explanation of the figurative meaning correct?

Callistemon Sat 17-Oct-20 12:59:40

I thought it was going to be about some autumnal pastime we could all enjoy!


Callistemon Sat 17-Oct-20 13:01:19


Greta Sat 17-Oct-20 13:02:57

Callistemon smile
Sorry to disappoint you!

Callistemon Sat 17-Oct-20 13:04:21

That's ok
Anyway, I learnt a new term today, thanks Greta

GagaJo Sat 17-Oct-20 13:08:40

Hahaha Callistemon

Esspee Sat 17-Oct-20 13:58:35

I always thought the term was used to describe a difficult and thankless task. My father explained to me it was used as a punishment in the navy. The resulting fibres were used to caulk ships (seal the gaps between planks)