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E. Nesbit, in The Book of Dragons, toward the end of the chapter titled 'The Island of the Nine Whirlpools', wrote:

The nine rubies were used afterwards in agriculture. You had only to throw them out into a field if you wanted it plowed. Then the whole surface of the land turned itself over in its anxiety to get rid of something so wicked, and in the morning the field was found to be plowed as thoroughly as any young man at Oxford. So the wicked King did some good after all.

This is a children's book, so I'm guessing "plowed as thoroughly as any young man at Oxford" doesn't mean what it implies to me. Edith Nesbit was English and she wrote this book in a fun / silly / dry witty style. What does she mean by this line?

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    Is this an American English edition of the book? I'd've expected a Brit like Nesbit to write "ploughed" (but maybe in her day "plowed" was more used in British English, dunno).
    – Rand al'Thor
    Nov 14, 2023 at 7:45
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    @Randal'Thor - No - in fact, in the Sherlock Holmes story The Three Garridebs, a text purportedly written by an Englishman is shown to be a fake by the use of the American spelling plow. Maybe the OP's copy is an American edition. Nov 14, 2023 at 10:28
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    @justhalf - But Oxford undergraduates don't normally plough fields, and saying a student had been 'ploughed' (as in Peter Shor's answer) was a recognised slang usage at that time (1899). Nov 14, 2023 at 17:07
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    @justhalf - Well, town-dwellers don't plough fields either! Nov 15, 2023 at 11:10
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    I understood 'plow/plough' in the quote as something the examiners do to the student. Rather more than just missing a pass mark by a percent or two - failing spectacularly, probably because the student spent their year drinking and partying. From The Time Machine by H. G. Wells: ‘One might get one’s Greek from the very lips of Homer and Plato,’ the Very Young Man thought. ‘In which case they would certainly plough you for the Little-go. The German scholars have improved Greek so much.’ (Little-go was an early exam to check your Greek and Latin was up to scratch) Nov 15, 2023 at 19:01

2 Answers 2

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This is a punning comparison, like

He lies like a rug,
He'll fold faster than a lawn chair.

We still use them in English, but they were considerably more common in previous centuries.

There's actually another punning comparison in this story:

his [the dragon's] claws were as long as lessons and as sharp as bayonets.

Note that lessons aren't long in the same way that claws are long.

Looking in the OED yields this definition of "plough":

transitive. colloquial (originally University slang). To reject (a candidate) as not reaching the required standard, esp. the pass standard, in an examination; to fail to reach the required standard in (an examination, etc.). Cf. pluck v. 8a. Now somewhat archaic. 1854--

This is the definition in the OED that seems to fit best, and in my opinion, it fits quite well.

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    @JackAidley: I think this is one of those punning comparisons that English authors used to be so fond of (and still use occasionally) like “he lies like a dog,” or “he’ll fold faster than a lawn chair.”
    – Peter Shor
    Nov 14, 2023 at 17:01
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    wait, so all the young men at Oxford were regularly failing their exams and known for this?
    – Michael
    Nov 14, 2023 at 18:47
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    @Michael Perhaps this was back when universities had standards ;-) Exams were tough, it wasn't free degrees for anyone who could get into the university.
    – Rand al'Thor
    Nov 14, 2023 at 21:13
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    @Michael All of them? No. But the quote says “any”, not “every”. The field is ploughed as thoroughly by these rubies as any young man could be by an Oxford exam. Some young men sitting exams at Oxford will be well and truly ploughed (not to mention thrashed, crushed, owned, chewed up and spit out, and any number of other idioms) by the exam. Nov 15, 2023 at 13:45
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    @PeterShor I find it an interesting contrast that this comparison uses the figurative (or at least idiomatic) as an analogy for the literal. Folding like a lawn chair and its ilk use the literal as an analogy for the figurative. I think it’s a good part of the humour I find in this quoted passage, but that may just be me. Nov 15, 2023 at 13:49
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Ploughed is British slang for drunk, documented as far back as Dickens, and still in local usage on both sides of the pond.

Drunken university students, especially young ones, are not uncommon and Oxford is known for its drinking culture.

I'm assuming an Americanized edition would explain the spelling change from "ploughed" to "plowed".

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    That's both amusing and makes sense in the context of the paragraph, but I'm not sure that the author would have meant it that way, given the intended audience. Sure, other dragons in this book liked to eat children, but that's standard fare for dragon associated fables. More so than drunken undergrads...
    – Winky
    Nov 14, 2023 at 19:51
  • Ploughed/plowed might once have been slang for 'drunk' on either side of the pond but I suggest that today, neither spelling is used any more than any other active verb… and like Winky, I'm not sure the author would have meant any such thing. Nov 17, 2023 at 0:47
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    @RobbieGoodwin for clarity the book in question was written in 1899, and Oxfords drinking culture started with wine clubs nearly as old as the school itself.
    – Josh King
    Nov 17, 2023 at 2:14
  • @JoshKing The only reason I'm saying this, is that you addressed that Comment to me specifically. Since you did, thanks and I hope others find it helpful. Nov 17, 2023 at 23:56

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