Loose cannon (1889)

Dave Wilton dave at WILTON.NET
Fri May 18 02:05:26 UTC 2007

I'm not at all surprised. Many words and phrases with commonly supposed
nautical origins are not nautical at all and appear much later than one
would suppose. In this case, the metaphor is indeed nautical but there is
zero evidence that the lexical item "loose cannon" was actually a component
of nautical speech. Instead, it appears to have been coined by non-sailors
familiar with the Hugo novel (in which it does not appear as a lexical

And the Isil book is a horrible, horrible book. I don't expect scholarly
research in a popular book like this, but some kind of research would be
nice. She just makes stuff up. I'm all for "fun"
books about language, but they should have a basis in reality.

If you want a good book on nautical language for the layperson, try "A Sea
of Words" by Dean King. It's written as a companion for Patrick O'Brian's
Aubrey-Maturin novels.

-----Original Message-----
From: American Dialect Society [mailto:ADS-L at LISTSERV.UGA.EDU] On Behalf Of
Sarah Lang
Sent: Thursday, May 17, 2007 10:40 AM
Subject: Re: Loose cannon (1889)

19thc. seems late. I would doubt it was not in usage during even the
17thc. (maybe even 16th)--as a "loose a can(n)on is rather serious
problem. I think it would be a question of when nautical speech was

(Also: when a Loose Cannon Flogs a Dead Horse There's the Devil to
Pay: Seafaring Words in Everyday Speech--Olivia A. Isil. Not
academic, but a good and entreating starting place.)


On May 17, 2007, at 10:28 AM, Stephen Goranson wrote:

> ---------------------- Information from the mail header
> -----------------------
> Sender:       American Dialect Society <ADS-L at LISTSERV.UGA.EDU>
> Poster:       Stephen Goranson <goranson at DUKE.EDU>
> Subject:      Re: Loose cannon (1889)
> ----------------------------------------------------------------------
> ---------
> Quoting Dave Wilton <dave at WILTON.NET>:
>> OED3 and HDAS have 1946.
>> From the _Galveston Daily News_ (Texas), 19 December 1889
>> (newspaperarchive.com):
>> "It would in no event become, as Mr. Grady once said, "a loose
>> cannon in a
>> storm-tossed ship," for the very reason that it has not
>> intelligence enough
>> to voluntarily stand alone as a class and vote as a political unit.
>> The metaphor may also be credited to Victor Hugo, who in his 1874
>> novel
>> _Ninety Three_, included an incident about a cannon loose on the
>> deck of
>> ship during a storm.
> Google books gives from Number seventeen: A Noevl [sic, though not
> so on the
> title page} by Henry Kingsley,  London, vol. 2, (apparently-
> legitimate) date
> 1875, p.60:
> At once, of course, the ship was in the trough of the sea, a more
> fearfully
> dangerous engine of destruction than Mr. Victor Hugo's celebrated
> loose
> cannon.
> ...
> Stephen Goranson
> http://www.duke.edu/~goranson
> ------------------------------------------------------------
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