If you have someone on a short leash, you are restricting someone’s freedom, and keeping strict control of that person’s activities for the purpose of controlling behavior. The idiom is literal in that it is based on the very definition of what a leash is and what it does: it’s a length of rope or leather used to prevent an animal from getting away. And it most definitely relates to control and maintaining control.
On April 1, 2011 the Belfast Telegraph ran a story on comedian Russell Brand who was providing voice-over talent in the family-friendly film, “Hop.” The story read in part:
“We had to keep him on a short leash for this movie!” James joked.
The actor explained: “He still gets to be Russell but he has to do it within the confines of [playing] the Easter Bunny.”
It’s the sort of expression that instantly provides a visual readers take seriously while chuckling at the implications. The Montreal Gazette published a news article on August 9, 1980 that stated that New York held the wallet for Canada’s biggest oil company, Imperial Oil Ltd. It stated that if any of Imperial Oil’s top managers in Toronto wanted to spend more than $5 million on a new project, they needed approval from someone in New York and that someone had to be from Exxon Corp of New York since it owned 69.9 percent of Imperial Oil. The headline read:
Canadian Company Kept On Short Leash
The Spokesman-Review of December 12, 1956 discussed the need for a strong military force in the Mediterranean Sea in a story they published entitled, “Strong Fleet Vital In Mediterranean.” The value of having a fleet in the Mediterranean was neatly summed up in the article that contained this comment in the article:
In this air age, the importance of maintaining a strong force of military planes is emphasized continuously, and rightly. But consider the advantages of having fleets such as the Sixth.
The fleet’s base is the United States. It has no base in the Mediterranean and wants non. As Admiral Brown said, “We like our independence … we do not run on a short leash.” The fleet can show up at a trouble spot without creating the alarm a flight of military planes over the same area might have. Further, it can disperse quickly if atomic attack is threatened. If caught in an atomic war, its vessels with their accompanying air power are better able to withstand shocks than can installations ashore, said Admiral Brown.
The expression seems to have changed over the decades, however the sense of the expression has remained unchanged as evidenced by the story in the St. Petersburg Times edition of February 17, 1927. The story was about the upcoming heavyweight fight slated for the following night between Jack Delaney and Jimmy Maloney. There had been, of course, the typical exhibition fights where each fighter took on sparring partners and reporters were eager to report on what they’d seen, stirring up excitement over the upcoming fight. The story ended with this paragraph:
Out of the exhibition there came to observes the conviction that Delaney is in the finest shape of his career, with every move indicating his knowledge of a bagfull of ring tricks, kept in leash to unloose any time he pleases. The Delaney who meets the charge of the Boston strong boy Friday night seemed more resourceful than ever — and bigger.
The earlier expression “kept in leash” appeared in a story in the Pittsburgh Press on February 2, 1908 entitled, “King And Crown Prince of Portugal Were Assassinated: Harry K. Thaw Now Behind The Bars Of Madhouse Cell.” The assassination of King Carlos and the Crown Prince, and the attempted assassination of the Queen and Prince Emmanuel on February 1, 1908 was reported in detail. Mobs were in control of the streets, and the growing severity of the measures of oppression and Premier Franco’s dictatorship were at the heart of the upheaval. The story read in part:
Deputy Almeida, former Deputy Costa, Viscount Rebeira — all level-headed men, were arrested several days ago for political activity and are in one of the several prisons here.
As a result of the long contest between people and police in which the former have been kept in leash by the arms of the latter, the city is a boiling cauldron from which anything may be expected if a determined leader rises and welds the hundred odd bands of Revolutionists into a compact army.
And before that, “kept in leash” and “held in leash” were used interchangeably while still maintaining the spirit of the expression. The New York Times of May 1, 1866 published an article about the Committee of Fifteen and the objections by Congress with regards to reconstructing the Union. The article entitled, “Reconstruction and Circumlocution” read in part:
While most of the propositions in this plan of reconstruction are just and sound, its leading purpose and design, viz.: the election of the President by a divided Union — is monstrously unjust, unwise, and impracticable, and if persisted in by majorities in Congress will lead to disastrous consequences. If, from unavoidable causes, the Union should be kept divided, the people would acquiesce. But when protracted disunion is deliberately contrived; when a measure, with this purpose, cropping out vividly, is put forth by a “Directory” which has thus far held Congress in its leash, it will NOT be endured.
In the essay by William Hazlitt (10 April 1778 – 18 September 1830) entitled, “On Wit And Humour” and published in his book “Lectures on the English Comic Writers” in 1818, wrote that man is “the only animal that laughs and weeps; for he is the only animal that is struck with the difference between what things are, and what they ought to be.” In his essay, he wrote:
It is the gaiety of despair, the mirth and laughter of a respite during pleasure from death. The strongest instances of effectual and harrowing imagination are in the story of Amine and her three sisters, whom she led by her side as a leash of hounds, and of the ghoul who nibbled grains of rice for her dinner, and preyed on human carcasses. In this condemnation of the serious parts of the Arabian Nights, I have nearly all the world, and in particular the author of the Ancient Mariner, against me, who must be allowed to be a judge of such matters, and who said, with a subtlety of philosophical conjecture which he alone possesses, that “if I did not like them, it was because I did not dream.”
And so, even in this essay, we see people being held on short leashes in a very literal sense. The Arabian Nights story to which Hazlitt refers is entitled, “The Three Calendars and Five Ladies.”
Ebenezer Cobham Brewer confirms in his book, “Dictionary of Phrase and Fable” that Amine was the wife of the character by the name of Sidi Nouman. He, too, attributes the leash comment to the Arabian Nights.
The “Dictionary of Collective Nouns and Group Terms” edited by Ivan G. Sparkes claims that a leash of armies was used as early as 1705 and that a leash of days dates back to the early 1600s. Indeed, the expression is found in a poem by Daniel Dafoe (1662 – 24 April 1731) entitled, “The Double Welcome: A Poem To The Duke Of Marlbro‘” in which readers find this passage:
From thence thro’ ravag’d Towns and conquer’d Plains
The Monument of Victory remains,
Augsburg and Munick trembl’d at your Name,
Tho’ not inform’d of your approaching Fame:
To Blenheim, happy Name! the Scenes advance,
There gathers all the Thunderbolts of France.
A Leash of Armies on thy Plains appear
Each fancied able to support a War,
And free a Nation from the Vanity of Fear.
We that at Distance saw th’ approaching Day,
Knew the Design, and saw the Bloody Way.
English dramatist, poet and actor Benjamin “Ben” Jonson (c. 11 June 1572 – 6 August 1637) used the word leash to describe several days in a row. The play in which it appeared is entitled, “Epicoene” written in 1609, and was among those that English Member of Parliament, Samuel Pepys (23 February 1633 – 26 May 1703) appreciated. The phrase can be found in this dialogue:
Yes, sir, anything I do but dream o’ the city. It stained me a damask tablecloth cot me eighteen pound, at one time; and burnt me a black satin gown, as I stood by the first at my Lady Centaur’s chamber in the college, another time. A third time, at the lord’s masque, it dropped all my wire and ruff with wax candle, that I could not go up to the banquet. A fourth time, as I was taking coach to go to Ware to meet a friend, it dashed me a new suit all over (a crimson satin doublet, and black velvet skirts) with a brewer’s horse, that I was fain to go in and shift me, and kept my chamber a leash of days for the anguish of it.
There are a number of other references that include the word leash, all of them dealing with control of some form or another. In fact, the expression leash of hounds can be traced back to the early 1300s. However, in the sense of control of humans, this round goes to Daniel Dafoe in 1705.