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Category: Origin of words

How to keep your powder dry in the 21st century. Idioms from the military

Keeping one’s options open, is an overused phrase in today’s demanding lifestyle. But its non-committal tone, sounds like its primary use would be by people suffering from FOMO – Fear of Missing Out.

 

I was staggered then, when my husband referred to his military training while discussing our travel plans. He said, “I’m trying to work out how to keep my powder dry.” I gave him that ‘lost the plot’ look as I’m the literary part of this coupling and he, the practical.  But when he explained its origin to gun powder I had to sit up and take note.

Hence, Wikipedia enlightens: “Trust in God and keep your powder dry. … “Trust in God and keep your powder dry” is a maxim attributed to Oliver Cromwell, but which first appeared in 1834 in the poem “Oliver’s Advice” by William Blacker with the words “Put your trust in God, my boys, and keep your powder dry!”

The Phrase Finder says the idiom means to be prepared and save your resources until they are needed.

Its origin is from the allusion to gunpowder which soldiers had to keep dry to be ready to fight when required. This advice reputedly originated with Oliver Cromwell during his campaign in Ireland. In Ballads of Ireland, 1856, Edward Hayes wrote:

“There is a well-authenticated anecdote of Cromwell. On a certain occasion, when his troops were about crossing a river to attack the enemy, he concluded an address, couched in the usual fanatic terms in use among them, with these words – ‘put your trust in God; but mind to keep your powder dry’.”

19th century citations of the phrase invariably give the full version – trust in God and keep your powder dry. This emphasises that ‘keep your powder dry’ was seen only as an additional insurance. This is made clear in a piece from The Times Literary Supplement, 1908:

“In thus keeping his powder dry the bishop acted most wisely, though he himself ascribes the happy result entirely to observance of the other half of Cromwell’s maxim.” http://www.phrases.org.uk/meanings/217500.html

Finedictionary.com says it means ‘to remain cautious and ready for a possible emergency.’

The dictionary has a list of examples of its use in literature but does not provide dates in all instances.

  • We’ll crouch against the wall, Ned, and keep our rifles, powder and ourselves as dry as possible.” The Texan Star” by Joseph A. Altsheler
  • Keep your powder dry, and trust in Providence, is the motto of the wise. “The Second Thoughts of An Idle Fellow” by Jerome K. Jerome
  • So long as the enemy sticks to the wood all we can do is to wait and keep our powder dry.” In the Field (1914-1915)” by Marcel Dupont. http://www.finedictionary.com/Keep%20the%20powder%20dry.html

Now I’m glad I have a military reference for the next time I have to be indecisive and weigh up my options before making a commitment.

Can you meet me at Wednesday at 3pm? “Well, I’m keeping my powder dry and I can only confirm on Wednesday morning,” I’ll say.

Keeping one’s options open, is an overused phrase in today’s demanding lifestyle. But its non-committal tone, sounds like its primary use would be by people suffering from FOMO – Fear of Missing Out.

I was staggered then, when my husband referred to his military training while discussing our travel plans. He said, “I’m trying to work out how to keep my powder dry.” I gave him that ‘lost the plot’ look as I’m the literary part of this coupling and he, the practical.  But when he explained its origin to gun powder I had to sit up and take note.

Hence, Wikipedia enlightens: “Trust in God and keep your powder dry. … “Trust in God and keep your powder dry” is a maxim attributed to Oliver Cromwell, but which first appeared in 1834 in the poem “Oliver’s Advice” by William Blacker with the words “Put your trust in God, my boys, and keep your powder dry!”

The Phrase Finder says the idiom means to be prepared and save your resources until they are needed.

Its origin is from the allusion to gunpowder which soldiers had to keep dry to be ready to fight when required. This advice reputedly originated with Oliver Cromwell during his campaign in Ireland. In Ballads of Ireland, 1856, Edward Hayes wrote:

“There is a well-authenticated anecdote of Cromwell. On a certain occasion, when his troops were about crossing a river to attack the enemy, he concluded an address, couched in the usual fanatic terms in use among them, with these words – ‘put your trust in God; but mind to keep your powder dry’.”

19th century citations of the phrase invariably give the full version – trust in God and keep your powder dry. This emphasises that ‘keep your powder dry’ was seen only as an additional insurance. This is made clear in a piece from The Times Literary Supplement, 1908:

“In thus keeping his powder dry the bishop acted most wisely, though he himself ascribes the happy result entirely to observance of the other half of Cromwell’s maxim.” http://www.phrases.org.uk/meanings/217500.html

Finedictionary.com says it means ‘to remain cautious and ready for a possible emergency.’

The dictionary has a list of examples of its use in literature but does not provide dates in all instances.

  • We’ll crouch against the wall, Ned, and keep our rifles, powder and ourselves as dry as possible.” The Texan Star” by Joseph A. Altsheler
  • Keep your powder dry, and trust in Providence, is the motto of the wise. “The Second Thoughts of An Idle Fellow” by Jerome K. Jerome

Now I’m glad I have a military reference for the next time I have to be indecisive and weigh up my options before making a commitment.

Can you meet me at Wednesday at 3pm? “Well, I’m keeping my powder dry and I can only confirm on Wednesday morning,” I’ll say.

Somnolent: Word use and origin

Last night when I got home after a long day’s work I felt particularly somnolent. This was hardly surprising as  I woke up at 4.30am fought with myself to get back to sleep without success, and started work at 10am.

I then proceeded with nine hours of intensive sub-editing at what is arguable the world’s most condemned newspaper, and in South Africa particularly.

 

sleep time

During the inordinate nine hours, I attempted to distract myself with internet research and delved into the origins of somnolent, which means sleepy.

Dictionary.com cites its origins as the late 14th century from the Old French somnolence derived from the Latin somnolentia “sleepiness” from somnolentus, from somnus “sleep (from PIE root, swep  “to sleep”. A related word is somnolency.

http://www.etymonline.com/index.php?term=somnolence

Yourdictionary.com gives us:

Adjective (comparative more somnolent, superlative most somnolent)

  1. Drowsy or sleepy.
  2. (dated) Causing literal or figurative sleepiness;soporific.

 

Soporific is also an interesting word which I discovered at university and it was apt to describe the nature of my tutorials on Sir Gawain and the Green Knight (http://www.sparknotes.com/lit/gawain/).  I could never understand why we were made to suffer this belaboured text as part of our first year English syllabus.

Yourdictionary.com dates the first usage of somnolent to 1615, but concurs with the other details that Dictionary.com provides for regional areas, confirming “swep” from Indo-Europe.

Read more at http://www.yourdictionary.com/somnolent#WzfHQqyI7L16MfaY.99

Somnolence is not state in which to conduct a day’s worth of subbing but  when the copy makes me yawn, due to its total lack of inspiration,   I really can’t blame myself.

Through the eye of the needle: biblical idioms

The English language is so rich and diverse that one lifetime is just not enough to master all of it.

But I have discovered that as much as English owes many of its idioms to the writings of the great Shakespeare, the bible has made a significant contribution of its own.

I hasten to add at this point, that researching Shakespearean idiomatic origins is a whole lot easier than that of biblical references.

Less is more in the writing discipline

Make your verbs work
Verbs must do the hard work in a sentence

I am reading a book in which the author has swamped the pages with an oversupply of adjectives.

Of course, this is just my opinion, but I find the need to qualify every verb and every noun in the sentence an overreach and, worst of all, a punishment to the text. And the reader.

Say it all in the essay

In my school days, I loved writing essays and sometimes the result was so impressive that my teachers rewarded me with the highest marks in the class.

Such was the honour that I was called upon to read my composition to my lesser scoring classmates.

The joy of serendipity

No work today.

I read the SMS on Monday with surprise, delight and near disbelief.Then I realised the universe had conspired to serve my needs.

Can writers be replaced by Artificial Intelligence?

Be afraid. Be very afraid.

Stand aside fellow writer as a machine does your work.

This is highly possible, and as early as 2018, if writings on the power and glory of Artificial Intelligence (AI) is anything to go by.

How big is your appetite for words?

Browsing through the Huffington Post, I happened upon a blog about strange and wonderful words.

When I reached the end of the text, I realised with horror that I have been known to groke on several occasions.

Why is spelling a bee?

bees at work

This is a question that has been on my mind ever since my encounter with the movie Akeelah and the Bee in 2006, and I was again reminded of it when I saw the term in a recent article.

Like many historians and students of language my assumption was that it had to do with that ever-busy, honey producing insect, the bee.

Conniption over court appearance: A modern day hissy fit

Conniption

Last month I received a self-sealing letter in the post. These are usually some or other form of traffic infringement notice. Indeed, it was. But it was red. This was the first time in my life that I had received a fine in red. Reading further, I found the fine showed a photograph of a car that is not mine, for a date on which I was not available, in a city I haven’t visited for more than 10 years. “No admission of guilt”, the document warned.

Thinking I would have to show up in court to defend these outrageous allegations, I had a conniption. Or a conniption fit, as is sometimes incorrectly stated.