Wednesday, 25 December 2013

Caltrop - A Step in the Spike Direction

A Russian caltrop, so called because you won't be rushin' anywhere after stepping on it
Actually it's just because it's Russian
(image by Древности Российского)


Noun. Also caltrap.
[Old English calcatrippe from medieval Latin calcatrippa, -trappa; senses 2 & 3 from
(ultimately identical) Old French kauketrape dialect variant of cauchetrape, chauche- (modern chaussetrape),
from chauchier tread + trappe trap.]

1 Originally a plant which tended to catch or entangle the feet.
Later, a plant with a flower-head suggestive of the military instrument (sense 3 below);
specifically (a) a water chestnut, Trapa natans, also water caltrop(s);
(b) a member of the genus Tribulus. OE

2 obsolete. A trap or snare for the feet. ME-M19

3 Historical. An iron ball with four spikes placed so that one is always projecting upwards,
thrown on the ground to impede cavalry horses. Also, a heraldic representation of this. LME

There are few greater agonies to be inflicted upon the human frame than that of stepping on an upturned plug. And we're not talking namby-pamby continental-style plugs here - we're talking full-on, three-pronged, conveniently-designed-to-always-be-upturned British and Irish style pluggery here. Oh the excruciation! The rage! The utter incapacitation of stepping on one of these! There is no pain - no pain - like it. And yet there is a contender for, while we can be thankful that we can take precautions in our homes to not leave upturned plugs lying about, their martially medieval counterparts, the caltrops, were tossed about with gay abandon during ... well ... since time immemorial, since the time when man first wanted to stop different man marching (or riding) toward him and staving his head in with a club.

The caltrop is a device of such fiendish simplicity and effectiveness that it's been in use since at least Roman times (and probably earlier), and has continued to make foot-piercingly painful appearances right through to World War II and beyond. It consists of any device, sometimes as simple as knotted wire, which has mutiple spikes and is designed, just like the Anglo-Irish plug, so that it should always fall spike up. Oh, and let's not forget the barbs - once an enemy has gone to the dashed trouble of stepping on one of your lovely caltrops, it would seem a tad unfair if he could just yank it out, wouldn't it? Such was the caltrop's effectiveness that not only would they stop man and horse but they would quickly render a war elephant - a war elephant - into a whimpering, blubbering mess. Which does seem a little cruel. Although were I to have been a lowly front-line foot soldier with a six-tonne Carthaginian war elephant bearing down on me, I probably wouldn't have been too worried about poor Nelly's feet.

Have you ever stepped on an upturned plug?

Have you ever stepped on a caltrop?

Do please wince, clench your buttocks, and hop out your spikiest comments below.


  1. I watched "Alexander" the other day, the Colin Farrell movie. His last battle was up against war elephants and watching the Greek army get well and truly battered I couldn't help thinking what could anyone do against them.
    Good old Romans. They figured it out. Horrific barbed iron spikes on the ground.
    "What have the Romans ever done for us? "
    Caltrops apparently.

    1. When writing this post, A.N, I was trying to think of anything comparably painful to stepping on a caltrop and I couldn't. You, however, have named it, good sir - watching Colin Farrell in Alexander. I think I got about 15 minutes in before I could take no more and cracked like a egg.

    2. Oh come on. It wasn't that bad. Obviously the Macedonians were a celtic people so casting an actor with a D4 accent was a stroke bordering on genius coupled with clever... No you're right it was pretty rubbish.

  2. this is the nightmare version of the barefoot encounter with lego during a midnight bathroom excursion