Historically Speaking

Making sense of it all!

Straining At The Leash

Posted by Elyse Bruce on February 15, 2013

When you read about someone straining at the leash , it means that person is eager to do something they are prevented from doing right now. It can also be understood that the verb “straining” refers either to a force that tends to pull or stretch something to an extreme or damaging degree, or to a severe or excessive demand on the strength, resources, or abilities of someone or something. In other words, context is everything when this phrase is in play.

Last year, on April 5, 2012 the Telegraph newspaper in the UK published a story that reported that it appeared almost inevitable that there wold be an attack on Iran unless Tehran changed its course on developing nuclear weapons. The headline read:

Israel’s Dogs Of War Are Straining At The Leash To Attack Iran: Can Barack Obama Stop Them?

On a more positive note, the Free Lance-Star published a story on February 15, 1977 entitled, “Straining At The Leash.” The first paragraph launched into the story by stating:

The space shuttle is not yet on the wing, but figuratively speaking it is now straining at the leash. The first orbiter, dubbed “Enterprise,” has been trundled across the desert to Edwards Air Force Base. After a series of more and more demanding ground and air tests, in July a two-astronaut crew will make the first crucial free-flight and landing attempts.

In Madras (the former name for the Capital city of the state of Tamil Nadu in South India), the Indian Express edition of October 18, 1941 reported on the resignation of the Japanese cabinet, indicating that it had been unable to reach agreement on vital questions connected with Japanese policy. The news story drew its headline from the last line of the story in the paragraph that read:

The Japanese will take no one unprepared but will find themselves embroiled in ventures the strain of which coupled with a severe economic boycott may well take them to the brink of catastrophe. It may still be that even a new Japanese cabinet inclined to throw its fortunes more openly into the Axis struggle, will watch and weigh before committing the nation to new perils brought on by Army and Navy chiefs who seem to be itching for action, straining like hounds at the leash.

When Associated Press Sports Writer, Paul Zimmerman wrote about the Columbia Lions and the Stanford Stars back on December 30, 1933, the Evening Independent carried the exciting story on the much-anticipated Rose Bowl game. The story was entitled, “Lions Eager To Enter Fray While Stanford Has Two Regulars Kept Abed By Severe Colds” and the first paragraph read:

Trained to the minute and straining at the leash, Columbia’s Lion gridsters restlessly awaited today their hour of departure for Pasadena where they will match their football skill against Sanford New Year’s Day.

Twenty years before that, the Meriden Daily Journal published a news article on October 8, 1903 on Russia’s answer to Japanese movement of troops into Korea. The story ran with the headline, “Czar Sends Ships To Corea To Offset Mikado’s Troops” and halfway through the article, the following was written:

With the dogs of war ready on both sides and straining at the leash, the diplomats of Russia and Japan are still trying to reach an amicable agreement. Negotiations are proceeding in Tokio, and, it is announced, that they are over the future of Corea and do not relate to the evacuation of Manchuria. Apparently this latter question has been settled to the satisfaction of the Russians. They are there and mean to stay.

Sir Walter Scott (15 August 1771 – 21 September 1832) published a  story in 1825 entitled, “The Talisman.”   This passage in the story made use of the expression:

King Richard looked more than once at the Nubian and his dog; but the former moved not, nor did the latter strain at the leash, so that Richard said to the slave with some scorn, “Thy success in this enterprise, my sable friend, even though thou hast brought thy hound’s sagacity to back thine own, will not, I fear, place thee high in the rank of wizards, or much augment thy merits towards our person.”

In the prologue of Act I in the play, “Henry V” by William Shakespeare (26 April 1564 – 23 April 1616), the play recounts, in part, how Henry V is committed to going to war for ethical reasons while at the same time being restrained by the fact that he must show just cause for going to war. How can this be claimed? The character of Henry V asks himself, “May I with right and conscience make this claim?” In other words, Henry V is weighing what is right according to his conscience before England wages war against another country. The passage about the hounds does not use the expression “straining at the leash” however it certainly carries with it the spirit of the expression.

The three hounds are famine, sword and fire, and the passage reads thusly:

Then should the warlike Harry, like himself,
Assume the port of Mars; and at his heels,
Leash’d in like hounds, should famine, sword and fire
Crouch for employment. But pardon, and gentles all,
The flat unraised spirits that have dared
On this unworthy scaffold to bring forth
So great an object: can this cockpit hold
The vasty fields of France? or may we cram
Within this wooden O the very casques
That did affright the air at Agincourt?

Although the figurative sense of straining at the leash is attested to from early in the 15th century, the reference to straining at the leash referring to a set of three is from the early 14th century and is found in sporting language. From this comes the archaic definition for straining as meaning that the individual or individuals are using their utmost effort.

So while Idiomation could only trace the exact wording of the idiom to Sir Walter Scott, the spirit of the idiom goes back to the 14th century.

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