Historically Speaking

Making sense of it all!

Loose Cannon

Posted by Elyse Bruce on April 12, 2011

As anyone who has ever had to deal with a loose cannon knows, it’s not a pretty sight whether it’s a real cannon or a person, and it can cause a lot of unnecessary damage.

The Hour¬†newspaper in Connecticut¬†— serving Norwalk, Weston, Westport and Wilton — reported on former WWF wrestler, Jesse Ventura in their October 14 edition back in 1999. The article by George F. Will summed up the article in four words in the headline, “Jesse, The Loose Cannon.” He set up the story thusly:

Jesse Ventura, a human Vesuvius who does not believe in hoarding himself, has Minnesota so well in hand he has time to give interviews promiscuously — 25 a week, he says. Nowadays these include interviews to tidy up after interviews, such as the one in Playboy wherein he said organized religion is for the weak-minded and that the military-industrial complex killed Kennedy …

Politicians appear to make use of the phrase most often. On December 27, 1952 the Spokesman Review ran an article entitled, “A Warning From Herbert Hoover.” The gist of the story was that he felt that the United States of America was in need of a political reshuffle and a return to the two-party system.

Now comes the claim that such an interpretation is “reactionary.” In fact, our major parties have become confused ever since the ghosts of Benito Mussolini, Karl Marx, Lord Keynes and our own give-away ideologists began to meddle in our national life. Under their influence, the definition of “Liberalism” is certainly badly befuddled. Today, ideological differences smash around like a loose cannon on the decks of our political parties.

The first published version of “loose cannon” as it refers to a person appears to be from December 1889 in the Galveston Daily News where the following can be found:

The negro vote in the south is a unit now mainly because it is opposed by the combined white vote. It would in no event become, as Mr. Grady once said, ‘a loose cannon in a storm-tossed ship.’

Prior to this, “loose cannon” was a nautical term that referred to a cannon that broke loose during battle or a storm, and caused serious damage to the ship and its crew.

In fact, in Victor Hugo’s novel, Ninety Three — known as Quatrevingt-treize in French — published in 1874 and set in 1793, the Marquis de Lantenac (leading the monarchist insurrection invading England) saves the life of a seaman who stops the destruction of the ship by a loose cannon. It’s a short-lived save as he then executes the seaman for endangering the lives of all aboard with the loose cannon in the first place.

In any case, a “loose cannon” in the nautical sense of the phrase has been around for as long as cannons have been onboard ships, but loose cannons referring to people has only been around since the 1880s.

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One Response to “Loose Cannon”

  1. This additional information was shared with me today courtesy of William Turner.

    A loose cannon was a threat on the old sailing ships not because it might fire but because it was a heavy metal and wood object crashing around inside a wooden ship packed with men. Cannon were only loaded during practice or when a fight was coming. The rest of the time they weren’t. During storms was when they tended to break loose and were most dangerous because of the pitching of the decks.

    Now, gun decks usually had low ceilings as in 6 feet or bit less and were packed with the gun crews who lived and slept around the cannon. Ships of the line weren’t very large by today’s standards, maybe 200 feet long for the larger ones, but could have several hundred to a thousand crewmen. You can see from that just how dangerous a two ton or more chunk of metal bouncing around would be.”

    Thanks for the extra details, William!

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