[Ads-l] Motto: Nits will be lice. (Request EEBO verification in 1683)

ADSGarson O'Toole adsgarsonotoole at GMAIL.COM
Wed Dec 16 17:58:18 UTC 2015


A figurative expression has been attributed to soldiers and military
commanders. The merciless saying purports to provide a rationale for
the killing of children and infants during wartime. I was asked to
trace the saying. Here are some versions:

Nits become lice. Nits will become lice. Nits make lice. Nits will be lice.

In the 1860s the expression was linked to John M. Chivington. But the
saying is much older. H. L. Mencken noted in his massive compendium
that the saying has been ascribed to Oliver Cromwell.

There is a match for "nits will be lice" dated 1683 in Early English
Books Online 2. Perhaps someone with access to this database would be
willing to forward to me the full citation details and the matching
text (with some surrounding text).

[Begin match information]
Title: An impartial collection of the great affairs of state. From the
beginning of the Scotch rebellion in the year MDCXXXIX. To the murther
of King Charles I. Wherein the first occasions, and the whole series
of the late troubles in England, Scotland & Ireland, are faithfully
represented. Taken from authentic records, and methodically digested.
Author: Nalson, John, 1638?-1686.
Publication Info: London : Printed for S. Mearne, T. Dring, B. Tooke,
T. Sawbrige, and C. Mearne, M DC LXXXIII [i.e. 1683]
Collection: Early English Books Online 2
[End match information]

The earliest matches I've found in Google Books are dated 1720, 1761,
and 1765. The 1765 cite seems to refer to the 1683 cite mentioned
above.

Year: 1720 (estimated date listed in WorldCat)
Title: Familiar Letters Betwixt a Gentleman and a Lady
Author: Mary Davys
(Epistolary novel: Letter to Artander from Berina dated November 10)
Publisher: Unknown
Quote Page 272
Database: Google Books Full View

https://books.google.com/books?id=4htkAAAAcAAJ&q=nits#v=snippet&

[Begin excerpt]
I went to the Irish Rebellion, where I saw more than three hundred
thousand Souls murder'd in cold Blood . . .
. . . Children ripp'd out of their Mother's Womb, and thrown to the
Dogs, or dash'd against the Stones; crying, Nits will become Lice,
destroy Root and Branch: with a thousand other Barbarities, too
tedious as well as too dreadful to repeat, beside what has been
transasted abroad.
[End excerpt]

Year: 1761
Title: Hau Kiou Choaan: Or, The Pleasing History: A Translation from
the Chinese Language
Volume: 3
Printed for R. and J. Dodssley in Pall-mall, London
Section: Chinese Proverbs and Apothegms
Quote Page: 213
Database: Google Books Full View

https://books.google.com/books?id=kl8iAAAAMAAJ&q=%22nits+will%22#v=snippet&

[Begin excerpt]
Look for horns in the head of a lamb newly brought forth.
[Parallel to that coarse but expressive saying of Oliver Cromwell,
"Nits will be lice."]
[End excerpt]


Year: 1765
Title: Historical Memoirs of the Irish Rebellion, in the Year 1641:
Extracted from Parliamentary Journals, State-Acts, And the most
Eminent Protestant Historians,
Author: John Curry
Publisher Location: London
Quote Page 103
Database: Google Books Full View

https://books.google.com/books?id=HLkvAAAAMAAJ&q=%22Nits+will%22#v=snippet&

[Begin excerpt]
And accordingly, Doctor Nalson, Protestant Divine, and Historian,
assures us, that, "the Severities of the Provost-Marshals, and the
Barbarism of the Soldiers to the Irish, were such, that he heard a
Relation of his own, who was a Captain in that Service, relate, That
no Manner of Compassion or Discrimination was shewed either to Age or
Sex, but that the little Children were promiscuously Sufferers with
the Guilty; and that, if any, who had some Grains of Compassion,
reprehended the Soldiers for this unchristian Inhumanity, they would
scornfully reply, Why! Nits will be Lice, and so would dispatch them."
[End excerpt]

Garson

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The American Dialect Society - http://www.americandialect.org


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