By ANNE DONNELL
I’m not thinking about doing this, but I have wondered which is correct: “Tarring and feathering is…” or “Tarring and feathering are…” This seems to be a terrible punishment. Thanks for satisfying my curiosity.-Local Reader
We’ll touch upon some history first. King Richard I (the Lionheart) issued orders to his navy in 1191 that thieves and felons were to be tarred and feathered. The hot tar, often extremely hot, would disfigure the victim, marking him as a criminal for the rest of his life, although a cottage fire from a thatched roof or some carelessly attended pig roasting could have done this, also. Sometimes only the head was done, being shaved first and then covered with the burning tar and an outward layer of feathers. The combination of suffering for miscreants and warning for fellow citizens has seemed a “wise” course through much of recorded history. Though King Richard’s order made this legal, for the most part, tarring and feathering is associated with vigilante activity.
The feathers? It seems this is also degradation, a statement that the bearer is less than human, sprouting feathers like something from “the lower orders.”
Typically, another message is sent along with the punishment: get out of town. Victims were loaded into wagons and carted past town borders. The feathers made less of a mess to clean out of the wagon later. Victims certainly knew they were no longer welcome.
Wikipedia (online, and in a disputed entry, meaning some readers have questioned its reliability) notes, “The first recorded incident in America was in 1766: Captain William Smith was tarred, feathered, and dumped into the harbor of Norfolk, Virginia, by a mob that included the town's mayor. He was picked up by a vessel just as his strength was giving out… As with most other tar-and-feathers victims in the following decade, Smith was suspected of informing on smugglers to the British Customs service.
“The punishment appeared in Salem, Massachusetts, in 1767, when mobs avenged themselves on low-level employees of the Customs service with tar and feathers. In October 1769, a mob in Boston attacked a Customs service sailor the same way, and a few similar attacks followed through 1774 … Such acts associated the punishment with the Patriot side of the American Revolution. In March 1775, a British regiment inflicted the same treatment on a Massachusetts man they suspected of trying to buy their muskets. There is no case of a person dying from being tarred and feathered in this period.
“During the Whiskey Rebellion, the punishment was inflicted on Federal tax agents by local farmers.
“In the early years of the Latter Day Saint movement during the early-to-mid 1800s, many of its adherents, including founder Joseph Smith, were tarred and feathered as a way to pressure the early LDS into leaving town or renouncing their beliefs.
“In 1851 a … mob in Ellsworth, Maine tarred and feathered a Swiss-born Jesuit priest, Father John Bapst, in the midst of a local controversy over religious education in grammar schools….
“In the 1920s, vigilantes opposed to IWW organizers at California's harbor of San Pedro, kidnapped at least one organizer, subjected him to tarring and feathering, and left him in a remote location.”
Racially inspired acts of tarring and feathering continued well into the twentieth century in America.
Disfiguring victims without hot tar but by cutting off fingers, hands, ears, even noses, as well as blinding victims or branding them, is a punishment still in vogue in some parts of our twenty-first century world.
THE ANSWER TO THE QUESTION. The preferred version: “Tarring and feathering is…” A mid-twentieth century grammarian, Margaret Bryant, cited in The Grouchy Grammarian ( Parish, Thomas. Hoboken, New Jersey: John Wiley & Sons, Incorporated, 2002. p 31), wrote, “ …if a group of words, even though plural in form, creates one conception in the mind of the person using them as a subject, a singular verb follows. In Modern English where there is a conflict between form and meaning, meaning tends to triumph.”
This means that we’ll have a plural form that really isn’t plural in meaning. Some terms are thrown together so much that the distinction is blurred. We say peanut butter and jelly is because our ears don’t like peanut butter and jelly are. The food category gives us several EXAMPLES: spaghetti and meatballs, turkey and dressing, ham and eggs.
You can create these as needed. EXAMPLE My teacher and friend [one person] is here tonight. My mother and best advisor [one person] has never failed me.
PS. Some nouns are plural in form and take a plural verb, but singular in meaning. EXAMPLES scissors, pliers, glasses, slacks, trousers, pants.
EPS. Subject-verb agreement is called concord. Home life probably isn’t.
Bigtime Word (BW) fungible – replaceable by, suitable as a replacement for. When your significant other throws this in the mix, think about who’s getting the dog.