... He(Uncle Vernon) shooed the shocked Masons back into the dining room, promised Harry he would flay him to within an inch of his life when the Masons had left, and handed him a mop. ...

I think "flay him to within an inch of his life" is figurative. But I'm not sure about what sense of 'flay' has been used from the following dictionary-suggesting definitions:

  1. When someone flays an animal or person, they remove their skin, usually when they are dead.

  2. If you flay someone, you criticize them severely for their beliefs, policies, or actions.

What does this phrase convey exactly?

-- Excerpted from Harry Potter.

  • 4
    "Shoo" in this sense is more akin to "herded", as if guiding animals. – Freddie R Oct 23 at 12:22
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    Please don't ask completely unrelated "side questions". Put them in a post of their own. – David Richerby Oct 23 at 16:23
  • @DavidRicherby the rule of one question one post sometimes is a bit strange. If I have several questions only in one sentence, I'm not sure if it's good idea to put it into several questions with the same quoted sentence, especially the sentence is very simple one. I personally feel it's unconvenient. After we helped with a big issue, why can't we just do a small and quick favor in addition to it in one question? – dan Oct 23 at 21:41
  • The problem with multi-part questions is that all the answers get mixed up. Somebody who comes to the site in a year's time looking for the answer to the "quick favour" question will have to wade through lots of text that's irrelevant to them. Sure, your questions were about the same sentence, but they were about completely different aspects of it. That they're the same sentence isn't intrinsic to the concepts being expressed: Rowling could have written "... room. He promised..." instead of "... room, promised... " and, suddenly, it's two sentences with exactly the same meaning. – David Richerby Oct 23 at 21:52
  • @DavidRicherby That's just a perfect ideal model, which is not very practical. Based on that, we should have some flexibility. But that's just my opinion anyway. – dan Oct 23 at 22:07
up vote 23 down vote accepted

You're missing another meaning of flay:

1.2 Whip or beat (someone) so harshly as to remove their skin.
‘he flayed them viciously with a branch’
(ODO)

He was going to beat Harry "to within an inch of his life". It's an exaggeration. He was threatening to severely beat or whip Harry.

Yes, as I understand the word shoo, it is impolite. He might have been annoyed, or the writer wanted to convey that Vernon was annoyed (or some similar feeling).

  • 8
    If he did actually "shoo" them, it would be impolite, but you can shoo someone without saying "shoo shoo" and flapping your arms. It could be construed to mean "rushed" or "hurried" them. Which would be slightly impolite but not as bad as literally "shooing" them. Shoo the verb is defined as "Make (a person or animal) go away by waving one's arms at them, saying ‘shoo’, or otherwise acting in a discouraging manner." So you can "shoo" them by saying "oh let's go into the dining room" and then kind of guiding them. He is "shooing" them into the dining room and out of the room they are in. – Aaron Harun Oct 23 at 10:14
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    Shoo could be a reference to the physical arm movements he was making. – Ryan The Leach Oct 23 at 11:25

To "flay" someone is to use a light blunt object such as a cane or a whip to cause laceration damage to the person as opposed to the impact damage a heavy blunt object would cause.

To "shoo" someone comes from the actual word used during the action, similarly to "shushing" someone. If you "shh" or "shush" someone you gesture them to be quiet. To "shoo" someone is to gesture to them to go away or get out of your way. It is not especially rude though simply because it would most often be used to for example "shoo the birds off the lawn" or "shoo the children out of the study".

You would "shoo" something that is in a place it is not supposed to be and that usually knows its not supposed to be there but has been allowed to take liberties as long as they are not bothering anyone.

"Shoo" is usually used when you catch someone doing something they shouldn't be doing even though they are causing no harm and instead of reprimanding them you "shoo" them away.

I bet you $5 that Uncle Vernon was substituting the word "flay" instead of "flog" for effect. Flaying is hard to do without killing.

"Flog him to within an inch of his life" makes sense: it was the subject of this 2006 post at another idiomatic expression website:

I am more familiar with the phrase 'flogged TO within an inch of his life' which makes it a little clearer, I think.

https://www.phrases.org.uk/bulletin_board/51/messages/568.html

  • 2
    Please specify why you think that "flay" is a mistake. (The existence of similar words that work in the same sentence is not proof in itself.) The evidence provided in the top answer, plus the source of the quote make it highly unlikely this is an error. – Laurel Oct 23 at 16:53
  • @Laurel, I think this answer has some point because it hasn't said "flay" is a mistake, and it said "Uncle Vernon was substituting the word "flay" instead of "flog" for effect". – dan Oct 24 at 1:26
  • @dan, Laurel had been commenting on the prior-to-edit version, in which I had forgotten to read the context: I think Rowling wouldn't make that mistake, but Vernon definitely would. – elliot svensson Oct 24 at 13:54

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