Ask Language Log: "In wildcat form"

« previous post | next post »

Joseph Berger, "Modesty in Ultra-Orthodox Brooklyn Is Enforced by Secret Squads", NYT 1/29/2013 (emphasis added):

“We give out proclamations,” said Rabbi Yitzchok Glick, its executive director. “We don’t enforce. It’s like people can decide to keep Shabbos or not. If someone wants to turn on the light on Shabbos, we cannot put him in jail for that.”

But Hasidim interviewed said squads of enforcers did exist in wildcat form.

“There are quite a few men, especially in Williamsburg, who consider themselves Gut’s polizei,” said Yosef Rapaport, a Hasidic journalist, using the words for “God’s police.”  “It’s somebody who is a busybody, and they’re quite a few of them — zealots who take it upon themselves and they just enforce. They’re considered crazy, but people don’t want to confront them.”

About the expression "in wildcat form", AMG asks:

I have never heard of this expression and when I Googled it, I only found the football term "wildcat formation" but no references that seem to indicate that this term has entered popular (e.g., non-football) culture.  Have you heard of it? Do you know what it means?  It seems odd to use such an obscure phrase in a NYTimes article.

The OED notes that wildcat was figuratively

Applied to banks in the western United States which, before the passing of the National Bank Act of 1863, fraudulently issued notes with little or no capital, or to their notes or transactions; hence extended to unsound or risky business enterprises generally; also to illicit businesses or their products (e.g. wild-cat whisky); and more widely to reckless, rash, or extravagant undertakings, statements, etc., and (colloq.) with reference to wildcat strikes. This application is said to have arisen from the fact that the notes of a bank in Michigan bore the device of a panther, locally known by the name ‘wild cat’.

Among the cited contexts are "An exploratory oil-well, drilled where there is only a possibility of success", "Illicitly distilled whisky", "a sudden and unofficial strike", "an extra train running in addition to those on the timetable".

And Wikipedia tells us that a wildcat cartridge is "a custom cartridge for which ammunition and firearms are not mass produced". The wildcat formation is indeed an offensive scheme in American football, characterized by "a direct snap to the running back and an unbalanced offensive line"; but this usage is only about 15 years old, whereas wildcat banks date to the 1830s, wildcat oil drilling to the 1870s, wildcat whisky to the 1880s, and wildcat strikes to the 1930s.

So squads of enforcers "in wildcat form" would be unofficial, irregular, and illicit, and perhaps also reckless, rash, and extravagant.


  1. lemur said,

    February 1, 2013 @ 1:11 am

    The important thing is that Joseph seems to have thought that "in wildcat form" is an idiomatic expression. In fact this is just a use of "in [ADJECTIVE] form", a common phrase meaning that the adjective pertains to the thing described.

    "Modernity and prosperity came to Belarus during the Soviet era and in Soviet form."

  2. Pinton said,

    February 1, 2013 @ 1:51 am

    Might it also include the "fraudulently issued notes with little or no capital" sense if Gut’s polizei are giving out "proclamations" that carry no legal weight?

  3. Shalom Lappin said,

    February 1, 2013 @ 3:44 am

    Wouldn't this use of "wildcat" derive from wildcat strikes? The latter are strikes that do not have official union approval, but are spontaneous industrial actions implemented by a group of workers. The connection with unauthorized vigilante behaviour seems clear.

  4. Jason B. said,

    February 1, 2013 @ 5:31 am

    I also immediately thought of wildcat strikes.

  5. Ø said,

    February 1, 2013 @ 7:54 am

    The meaning is perfectly clear to me, but the word "form" does conjure spooky images. That animal is looking at me funny; is he an undercover agent of God?

  6. ajay said,

    February 1, 2013 @ 9:16 am

    Hasidic Werecat Squad – Assemble!

  7. Mr Fnortner said,

    February 1, 2013 @ 10:32 am

    Would a direct snap to the running back be acceptable if the line wasn't unbalanced and offensive?

  8. mollymooly said,

    February 1, 2013 @ 10:53 am


    In fact this is just a use of "in [ADJECTIVE] form", a common phrase meaning that the adjective pertains to the thing described.

    I'd say "wildcat" was a noun rather than an adjective; but "in [NOUN] form" also common.

  9. J.W. Brewer said,

    February 1, 2013 @ 1:35 pm

    My sense is that sometimes wildcat strikes are actually subjectively disapproved of by the official union leadership because they makes their life more difficult (and/or reduce their bargaining power by suggesting they can't control/deliver their own rank and file) but other times wildcat strikes are secretly subjectively approved of by the official union leadership which is simply prevented by legal or political constraints from openly voicing that approval, sort of like making sure plausible deniability is maintained for covert operations. I'm not sure which of those analogies might be implied here – perhaps neither since it can go either way. Separately, my sense is that in the oil-bidness usage, "wildcat" has largely positive overtones when applied to human beings, because risk-taking (even more extreme risk-taking than others would be comfortable with) is viewed as a generally admirable trait by the relevant subculture, but the New York Times is a long way from the oil patch so those connotations might not carry over either.

  10. Mr Punch said,

    February 1, 2013 @ 4:15 pm

    Wildcat as in wildcat strike, surely – "in the form of local groups taking action without the sanction of the constituted authorities." Actually quite clear although unusual usage.

  11. The Ridger said,

    February 1, 2013 @ 7:22 pm

    It's still an idiom, lemur, unless you subscribe to the notion that the enforcers are shapeshifters.

  12. Erik said,

    February 3, 2013 @ 1:55 am

    One of my favorite Pynchon quotes features 'wildcat':

    "The Courier’s Tragedy was being put on by a San Narciso group known as the Tank Players, the Tank being a small arena theater located out between a traffic analysis firm and a wildcat transistor outfit that hadn't been there last year and wouldn't be this coming but meanwhile was underselling even the Japanese and hauling in loot by the steamshovelful."

  13. Michael Cargal said,

    February 3, 2013 @ 6:07 am

    In my experience working in the oil patch, a wildcat outfit is a independent drilling company, as distinguished from Chevron or Mobil.

  14. Alex said,

    February 3, 2013 @ 3:52 pm

    @the Ridger
    Yes, that's what I thought, too. What if "in wildcat form" means they are vigilante groups of Hasidic werecats? I suppose then the story would be more suited to the Weekly World News than to the NYT.

  15. Dan M. said,

    February 3, 2013 @ 7:37 pm

    Ridger, isn't that just an ordinary metaphor, not an idiom? I suppose there are two separate metaphors. "In X form." uses "form" metaphorically to mean "have X character", and "wildcat" is a metaphor for "dangerously occurring without official support", but the two compose with each other and with the rest of the language unsurprisingly.

  16. Anschel Schaffer-Cohen said,

    February 8, 2013 @ 11:46 pm

    I'm actually more intrigued by the reporter's spelling of "Gut's polizei", which I assume is meant to render the Yiddish "גאָטס פּאָליצײַ", which would be rendered in academic transliteration as "gots politsay" or (since most North American Hasidim speak "southern" Yiddish) "guts pulitsay". The spelling "polizei" suggests a common tendency to render Yiddish words as their German cognates, especially when (as in this case) the pronunciation is nearly identical. Equally fascinating (at least to me) is the apostrophe in "Gut's", apparently an attempt to match the Yiddish genitive to its English cognate despite the fact that Yiddish itself writes this form without diacritics.

RSS feed for comments on this post