The particle at appears to be the goal or objective of opportunists who attempt to take advantage whenever possible. Some verbs show an endeavour to do something by the subject but we do not know if the attempt was successful or the goal was attained. The objects of some verbs are close to the subject, being within arms reach or at a distance that can be covered by a leap.
The particle is always followed by the accusative which denotes the importance of the object, or goal.
Because there is much effort in trying to accomplish something but no evidence of it being successful, there is a feeling that the subject is somebody who has not quite mastered the art of his craft, rather like an apprentice. So we can think of at as being more to do with adolescents rather than more mature and proficient adults.
There is much rough and tumble, grabbing, grasping, snatching, with sudden attacking, leaping, jumping, flinging, throwing, and flying at the target or objective, verbs that are aggressive in nature. Therefore who are these aggressive apprentices?
During the Middle Ages, vassals, who were people who swore allegiance to a nobleman in return for land, would send their sons to the lord’s castle at the age of seven, where they lived as a page to the noble family, this being the first stage in their preparation to be a knight.
For the next seven years, the child was brought up by the women of the household, helping in the kitchens, serving at the table and being taught how to behave. At fourteen the page became an esquire. During the next seven years, the esquire (or squire) was educated in all aspects of combat and warfare becoming a master of fighting on foot or on horseback proficient in the use of sword and shield, mace, axe and lance. Training daily with these weapons, the young adolescent developed a strong physique and stamina. When not training for combat his duties were to serve his knight, look after the knight’s armour and weapons and accompany him to tournaments acting as the knight’s personal assistant.
Though strong and formidable combatants, they were still adolescents and had all the traits of juvenile behaviour. Groups of these young men who accompanied their knights to the tournaments very often became a source of trouble, picking fights with the esquires of other knights, or even fighting amongst themselves. The tournaments were very popular and drew large crowds, knights and esquires from all parts of the country and even abroad.
These juveniles were a serious problem, clashes between opposing groups resulted in death and injury, not only amongst themselves but also amongst the local populace. The breakdown of law and order, pillaging, raping and deaths were so common, that in 1260 King Richard the First issued the Statute of Arms. This was a law that restricted any knight attending a tournament to a maximum of three squires. The squires were required by law to wear the badge of their knight, so that they could be identified. The statute also declared that:
“”…no Knight or Esquire serving at the Tournament, shall bear a sword pointed, or Dagger pointed, or Staff or Mace, but only a broad sword for tourneying”.
Failing to obey the statute meant the forfeiture of horse and harness, arms and armour and three or more years in the dungeon.
This shows how problematic and out of control these young men were; anyone familiar with the world of football hooligans will see exactly what we are talking about.
There are several verbs meaning to ‘suddenly attack’.
To come at sb means to move in the direction of sb as if to attack them as in fly at sb, go at sb.
There are attempts to take hold of something, the movement is sudden, as if on impulse, eg. to grab, grasp leap, snatch, and throw. These suggest a melee, rather like a scrum in the game of rugby and the particle with several verbs are synonymous with the verb ‘to tackle’ as in rugby (which is the action of one player throwing himself at an opposite team member who has got the ball, his arms locked around the legs, in order to bring him to the ground). Throw yourself at sth, and go at sth, meaning to start to do sth such as a job or difficult task, working hard to do it and getting the job finished.
There is opportunism, as in jump at sth, leap at sth and snatch at sth , meaning to accept an opportunity with enthusiasm. To stick at sth meaning to work in a determined way, tackling the problem until it has been overcome.
Although there is an element of surprise, the surprise is always on the part of the victim, who has been assessed as a possible easy target by the attacker. Examples are look at sth meaning to closely examine, think or consider about sth, and to put sth at sth, meaning to estimate the age or weight etc. of sth. In this case the ‘sth’ is the target to be attacked. After looking at and putting sth at sth, the attacker can decide whether the target or victim will be easily overcome. If, because of the age, weight, size and probable fighting ability of the examined target is rather too much of a challenge, the young squire would go in search of an easier target.
The knight was a mature and accomplished suitor, with refined powers of seduction, the esquire however was a juvenile lacking in his master’s polished skills of love. Therefore we have fling and throw oneself at sb, a clumsy attempt at seduction, with the result that other squires would laugh at him. A successful squire who managed to attract his desired maiden, could have received a knowing look from a fellow esquire, who would wink at his advances. Likewise, to wink at sth is to show acknowledgement of sth that sb has done that is illegal, or for the squire, perhaps a breach of the code of chivalry.
The squire could be criticised for behaving badly by his knight who would talk at him, or level sth at him, thus giving the squire a cause to worry at sth, being anxious or preoccupied about some problem or the future outcome of a passed misdemeanour.
Play, to act as if you are, or to pretend to be, when used with at suggests the horse-play of the squires in a rough and tumble, but without any serious
intent to cause injury.
With peck, pick and sniff at sth, we can see the young squire who is accustomed to eating fine food from his master’s table, showing distaste at food not cooked to his liking.