An extraordinary number of everyday clichés originated in the military. Ranging from the ancient climb the walls and Pyrrhic victory to the modern buy the farm, they owe their provenance to armed conflict.
Among the most interesting are those with apocryphal and/or disputed stories concerning their origin. For example, son of a gun dates from about 1700. Today we consider the phrase a euphemism for son of a bitch, that is, a scoundrel. Once, however, it meant the illegitimate son of a soldier (“gun”). But it may originally have referred to a boy who was conceived or born at sea, back in the days when women were allowed to accompany men on shipboard.
To eat crow, meaning to acknowledge an embarrassing mistake and consequently humble oneself, gave rise to a fascinating story published in the Atlanta Constitution in 1888. Near the end of the War of 1812 during a temporary truce an American allegedly went hunting behind British lines, where he shot a crow. He was caught by a British officer who, complimenting him on his fine shooting, persuaded him to hand over his gun. The officer then pointed the gun at the hunter and said that as punishment for trespassing the American must take a bite of the crow. The American obeyed, but when the British officer returned his gun, the American took his revenge and made the Englishman eat the rest of the bird.
One problem with this delightful story is that the term “eat crow” was first recorded more than half a century after the War of 1812, and the phrase was first put as “eat boiled crow.” The fact that crow’s meat tastes terrible is indisputable. Indeed, an old joke among backpackers is that if you are lost in the woods with nothing to eat, catch a crow, put it in one of your boots, boil it for a week, and then eat the boot.
A loose cannon, in the days when cannons were mounted on the decks of sailing ships, was obviously a great hazard to both the ship and the crew. And during combat or a violent storm, cannons did sometimes come loose and roll about the deck, damaging the hull and injuring sailors. In the twentieth century, the term began to be used figuratively as it still is: that is, for a person who behaves unpredictably and has the potential to cause serious harm.
To be beyond the pale today means to be outside the bounds of acceptability. The original meaning of pale was from the Latin palus, a pointed stake driven into the ground to serve as part of a fence. By the fifteenth century, it had taken on the meaning of various defended enclosures of English territory inside other countries. The English Pale was the territory of Calais, the last English possession in France. More famous was the Irish Pale, the one part of Ireland under English jurisdiction. Thus beyond the pale meant beyond the boundary of English civilization, the implication being that everything outside the enclosure was barbaric.
A forlorn hope is an expectation that is unlikely to be met, a hope that will not be fulfilled. This expression originated in sixteenth-century Dutch, where a verloren hoop (“lost troop”) was a band of soldiers selected to head an attack. Being in such a position generally resulted in many casualties, and hence the name: soldiers their command expected to lose. The term was Anglicized, but hoop was misunderstood to signify “hope,” whence comes the present-day meaning.
Much older is the term climb the walls, meaning to feel so frustrated that it impels one to act. According to the Bible’s book of Joel, a great army will come upon the Israelites and “they shall climb the wall like men of war.” In the days of walled cities and towns, attackers would climb the walls to breach the defenses, generally using ladders or towers. Of course they did not do so from frustration, but the frustrations of attackers and defenders in a siege probably gave rise to the idea that such frustrations could figuratively drive someone up the wall.
Also from ancient times is Pyrrhic victory, a victory that is harder on the winners than on the losers. In his Lives, Plutarch quoted King Pyrrhus of Epirus as saying, “Another such victory over the Romans and we are undone.” The second battle of Asculum, in 279 B.C., represented the first big battle between the Greek and Roman forces, during which Pyrrhus, who had come with twenty-five thousand men, lost his best officers and many of his troops. The term is still used.
The precise origin of the phrase buy the farm, meaning to die or be killed, is disputed. One theory is that it comes from when a government airplane crashes on a farm. The farmer then sues the government for damages, and the amount is always more than enough to pay off the mortgage and buy the farm outright. Since such a crash is nearly always fatal, the pilot has paid for the farm with his life. Another similar version involves the government issuing a life insurance policy to members of the U.S. armed services during World War II. Many of the troops were unmarried men who named their parents as beneficiaries. If the parents lived on a mortgaged farm and their son was killed, the insurance payment could pay off the mortgage. Yet another theory is that a soldier or a pilot, planning what he might do after the war, would talk about buying a farm. If later he was killed, his buddies might say, “I guess he’s bought his farm now.”
Of somewhat earlier provenance is like a bat out of hell, meaning very fast indeed. It dates from World War I, originally likening the flight of warplanes to that of the flying mammal. It soon entered the civilian vocabulary, where it remains firmly entrenched.
CHRISTINE AMMER is the author of numerous wordbooks, including the second edition of The Facts on File Dictionary of Clichés (2006).
Originally published in the Winter 2007 issue of Military History Quarterly. To subscribe, click here.