Saturday, October 29, 2005

Nailing one's colours to the mast

This morning I woke up to Radio 4's announcement that one or the other candidate in the terminally boring Tory leadership contest had 'nailed his colours to the mast'. (Apparently he promised to cut taxes, if you can imagine a politician taking such a courageous stand.) This made me think once again about the evolution of that metaphor. The phrase comes from the navy and originally meant 'to rule out the possibility of surrender'; as the 1898 edition of Brewer's Dictionary of Phrase and Fable says, 'When the colours are nailed to the mast they cannot be lowered in proof of submission.' (This is not always a good thing, as readers of Patrick O'Brian's novel The Mauritius Command will know.)

Nowadays, however, I most often hear the phrase used to mean 'state one's opinion' or 'make one's position clear' (although, strictly speaking, that's hoisting one's colours). I don't know when the popular usage changed, but it seems to have happened sometime in the past 75 years. (The 1922 edition of
Roget's Thesaurus lists 'nail one's colours to the mast' with synonyms like 'throw away the scabbard,' 'set one’s back against the wall' and 'burn one’s bridges,' suggesting that 'no surrender' was still the predominant meaning then.)

There are enough people around who know the original meaning to make the phrase ambiguous in some contexts. Take David Whoever's statement about taxes. If he was 'nailing his colours to the mast' in the modern sense, then he was simply saying, 'This is what I think.' But if he was doing it in the original sense, then he was saying, 'This is what I think, and I'll allow myself and my supporters to be destroyed rather than compromise.' Personally, if I were a Tory, I would be wary of a leader who took the latter position. But on second thought, if I were a Tory, I might find it refreshing to have a leader who actually had a reason for letting the party sink.

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