What does this mean: "He rushed past her like a football tackle, bumping her." (The Catbird Seat, by James Thurber)

Does it show his swift move? I watched some football tackles on YouTube. They are very violent. Has he done so? Probably not. How would you reword and rephrase this sentence?

  • 2
    I'd hasten a guess that it's referring to how he entered shoulder first in his haste; lowering it in such a way that he resembled a (American) football player going in for a tackle.
    – JMB
    Feb 28, 2014 at 23:17
  • 2
    Probably not as hard as in that video. (Also note that the title of the video is 5 Hardest Footbal Tackles.) But I guess that it would be rather hard, at least to her. Feb 28, 2014 at 23:52
  • 2
    Here, a football tackle is not the action of tackling. Instead, it's a member of the team. So he's rushing past like that team member would, bumping into her, but he's not actually violently tackling her.
    – user230
    Mar 1, 2014 at 4:28
  • 1
    To give another example similar to what @snailplane said, consider the word guard in the context of basketball. All defenders in basketball are supposed to "guard" their man, but there is also a position on the team called guard. Basketball teams are comprised of guards, forwards, and centers, so the word guard could be referring to the action, or the position.
    – J.R.
    Mar 1, 2014 at 11:15

1 Answer 1



This question is from James Thurber's The Catbird Seat. The original text is as follows:

  • There was nobody on the stair, which went up ahead of him ... A door opened down the hall in the wall on the right. He went toward it swiftly, on tiptoe. "Well, for God's sake, look who's here!" bawled Mrs. Barrows, and her braying laugh rang out like the report of a shotgun. He rushed past her like a football tackle, bumping her. "Hey, quit shoving!" she said, closing the door behind them. They were in her living room, which seemed to Mr. Martin to be lighted by a hundred lamps. "What's after you?" she said. "You're as jumpy as a goat."

This clearly shows that he did not injure her in any way, but merely surprised her and shoved her. The following is from Critical Semiotics, Lecture Eight: A Semiotic Reading of James Thurber's "The Catbird Seat" by Scott Simpkins1

  • When Mrs. Barrows opened her door... she appears as a formidable barrier...Mrs. Barrows would normally stand as a considerable annoyance for Mr. Martin... But, newly invigorated, Mr. Martin "rushed past her like a football tackle, bumping her."

This is a tricky sentence to interpret because there are two meanings of "a football tackle: a verb and a noun." (AmEng). In addition, your reference to "swift move" and "football tackles on YouTube" got pretty much everyone2 thinking in terms of the verb. (A verb-ish meaning could make sense, even though it would be awkward. It would be similar to "a train wreck" which is a noun form of "The train did wreck." This is sometimes used like this, "The movie was painful to watch; it was like watching a train wreck in slow motion. You knew it was going to end badly.") Here are two definitions for "football tackle".

  • football tackle (Verb): The action of one person knocking down another person who is holding the football. "He tackled the quaterback."
  • football tackle (Noun): A person designated and positioned on the field to attempt to tackle the person who is holding the ball. "After graduating in 1941, Clarence attended Morgan State University in Maryland and twice earned All-America honors as a football tackle." (African-American Sports Greats: A Biographical Dictionary, David L. Porter)

The proper interpretation is the noun form. The sense of the sentence is like, "John ran like a cheeta." Also note that a "rush" in football is a play in which several tackles will rush (run quickly) towards the quarterback to grab him and take him to the ground (tackle him).

The word "like" is important, since that suggest an simile, wherein one thing is similar, but not the exact same as, another thing. If one says, "My brother ran like a cheeta" we don't think he really ran as fast as a cheeta. We know that means he ran very fast. So "like" describes how he rushed: like a tackle might rush towards a quarter-back. He bumped her as he passed her. It's an aggressive and surprising movement for sure. However, it was certainly not as fast or aggressive as a football player. And importantly, he did not tackle her or even attempt to tackle her! That character had enough of being intimidated by her, and the bump was to show her that he wasn't going to put up with her domination anymore.

1. A "semiotic reading" would (roughly) be one that analyses what is meant, symbolically.
2. @snailplane determined correct interpretation. @J.R. helped bring to my attention with co-editing.

Additional "Advice"

I would like to offer some additional advice, since I've noticed that you're asking quite a few questions from famous short-stories that may be somewhat advanced for you. It's difficult to give you a good sense of what's going on without more context, and typically these books are studied in class situations where themes play an important role in understanding.

The details of what these "mean" both literally and figuratively have been covered by analyses that are available on the web, and you might want to start there first. Also, you may find famous stories such as this one (and commentaries about them) have been translated into (or written in) your native language as well.

  • Could you give me a link which tells what the writer says in every sentence in a simpler English or with some explanation? Something like when a literature teacher is helping his students to comprehend the text
    – Juya
    Mar 1, 2014 at 10:25
  • @CoolHandLouis A much better answer now, that I am pleased to upvote. Mar 1, 2014 at 12:48
  • @StoneyB Thanks! And I did some reading on SE philosophy of not becoming a link repository. If you thought that last revision was good... you gotta see the latest. Rengineered the answer to match snailplane's correct interpretation. Mar 1, 2014 at 15:44
  • Excellent! Also: the DT (defensive tackle) must force his way past the opposing linemen--OTs (offensive tackles) and OGs (offensive guards)--in order to reach the backfield and tackle the ball carrier (who in Thurber's day was more likely to be the fullback or halfback or 'tailback' than the quarterback), just as Mr. Martin must force his way past Mrs. Barrows. Mar 1, 2014 at 16:05

You must log in to answer this question.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged .