Grasping The Nettle

Recently I came across a little ditty about stinging nettles:

Tender-handed stroke a nettle,
And it stings you for your pains;
Grasp it like a man of mettle,
And it soft as silk remains.

Well, that’s kind of cute, but is it true? My own experience with nettles is that they sting rather intensely no matter how I grasp them. We do have the phrase “grasping the nettle” in the English language, but I’ve always understood that an idiom for “face an unpleasant task squarely and do it briskly so that the pain of it is soonest past.” It’s a concept that comes from Aesop’s fables, as indeed does the “soft as silk” imagery from the verse above:

THE BOY AND THE NETTLE

A boy, stung by a nettle, ran home crying, to get his mother to blow on the hurt and kiss it.

“Son,” said the boy’s mother, when she had comforted him, “the next time you come near a nettle, grasp it firmly, and it will be as soft as silk.”

Moral: Whatever you do, do with all your might.

But was Aesop correct? It turns out that a bit of research has been done on the matter, and it would appear that Aesop was full of bunkum. In Grasping The Nettle: An Empirical Enquiry an intrepid researcher looked into it:

My original theory of nettle grasping was that nettles have little sticky-up hairs that poke in to your skin and inject poison in to it if you brush against them, but if you squish the hairs before they can poke in to you, you stop that happening. Grasping a handful of nettles won’t work – no matter how boldly you grasp, there will be parts of the nettle not squashed (where your fingers and palms don’t press against each other when your fist is closed) and just close enough to your skin to give you a nasty sting. So the trick is to find a largish, flattish leaf, position your thumb and forefinger above and below it but overlapping an edge, and grasp firmly. I have vivid memories of doing this repeatedly as a teenager.

I tried that trick again today, and I can attest that it works perfectly. And I repeated it many times on lots of large, flat nettle leaves, without getting stung at all. Hooray!

Except, except, except. A thorough-going empiricist…would notice that this isn’t watertight proof. I had no direct evidence that what I’d grasped would have stung me had I been less assertive.

So I decided to pay the price of a slightly-loopy curiosity and sting myself on one of the nettle leaves I’d just grasped, just to prove my point. Except I failed. No matter how lightly I brushed against those leaves, I remained unstung.

I knew the nettles from this clump could sting – in fact, it was getting stung by them while starting to clear them away that had painfully reminded me to check. But the leaves I’d picked to grasp didn’t seem to sting me.

I guessed that the stingy hairs might lose potency with age, and spread out as the leaf grew. So, while large leaves didn’t sting no matter what, the tiniest, newest leaves at the top of the stem would probably do the trick. A quick brush with the back of my hand confirmed — very painfully — that the little tiny leaves at the top emphatically could sting.

So to the real test! I boldly squeezed a tiny known-stingy nettle leaf between thumb and forefinger. And oh, my, but it hurt. It’s still hurting now, about twelve hours later.

There’s more, but you get the idea.

There’s also more, it turns out, to the “tender-handed stroke a nettle” verse that opens this blog post. According to Bartlett’s, it’s the first of two related verses in a poem by Aaron Hill, a poem that labors under the name “Verses Written, on Windows In Several Parts Of The Kingdom, In A Journey To Scotland.” The second verse press-gangs the first into the service of drearily-authoritarian advice for getting obedience out of rogues and commoners:

Tender-handed stroke a nettle,
And it stings you for your pains;
Grasp it like a man of mettle,
And it soft as silk remains.

’Tis the same with common natures:
Use ’em kindly, they rebel;
But be rough as nutmeg-graters,
And the rogues obey you well.

And there you have it! Bad horticultural data from Aesop, recycled as unpleasant management advice.

But don’t let that stop you from quoting the nettles verse in a reassuring voice, right before you make your bare-assed naked submissive go to the bottom of the garden to pick the nettles for her own nettles spanking…

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