Historically Speaking

Making sense of it all!

Up In Arms

Posted by Elyse Bruce on April 29, 2013

Nothing conveys the concept of being upset or angry better than to say that someone is up in arms. It means that whoever is up in arms is so upset, he or she is willing to do something in protest.

The Coventry Evening Telegraph in England published a news story on September 16, 2004 about West Midlands firefighters being surprised to learn that their colleagues in Derbyshire were no longer allowed to play volleyball and football for fear of serious injuries. The article was entitled, “Why Firemen Had To Stop Team Games.” The Assistant Chief Officer, David Smethurts was quoted as saying:

“It was clearly unsafe, and was one of the greatest causes of injuries of any activity we took part in. If our staff thought we were allowing any other activity that was causing that many injuries they would be up in arms. No-one particularly liked it when volleyball was stopped but they could understand why. I was aware Derbyshire were taking this action. What surprised us was that they were still working in an environment where volleyball was normal.”

Jumping back in time to April 2, 1952 the Spokesman-Review ran an Associated Press story that dealt with Newbold Morris and his demand for detailed data on the personal finances of high government officials. Cabinet members were incensed by the demand and made certain their objections were heard loud and clear. The article was entitled:

Scandal Hunter Going Too Far: Truman’s Cabinet Is Up In Arms About Morris’ Prying

Wandering back to July 22, 1888, the New York Times reported on all the Italian societies, civic and military, of New York, Boston and Philadelphia making their voices heard with regards to the Pauper Immigration bill that was brought forward by Congressman Ford of Michigan. The complaint was that the American press had started a serious war against all Italians, and that this behavior was adversely influencing the American Government against Italians in America. The article was simply titled:

They Are Up In Arms

The American Heritage Dictionary claims that the expression dates back from about 1700 with the expression referring to armed rebellion in the late 1500s.  When William Shakespeare wrote 2 Henry VI in 1591, he was sure to include the idiom in the more than once to ensure that it would be heard and remembered.

The princely Warwick, and the Nevils all,
Whose dreadful swords were never drawn in vain,
As hating thee, are rising up in arms:
And now the house of York, thrust from the crown
By shameful murder of a guiltless king
And lofty proud encroaching tyranny,
Burns with revenging fire; whose hopeful colours
Advance our half-faced sun, striving to shine,
Under the which is writ ‘Invitis nubibus.’
The commons here in Kent are up in arms:

It showed up in his play Richard III published in 1592 where the following was written:

March on, march on, since we are up in arms;
If not to fight with foreign enemies,
Yet to beat down these rebels here at home.

So while the idiom did mean armed rebellion, the fact of the matter was that such armed rebellion was brought about because those involved in the rebellion were, indeed, so upset that they were wearing articles of clothing with heraldic arms embroidered on certain articles of clothing by the mid-1550s.

However, the word armor meant “means of protection” in the early 1300s, and came from the Latin word armatura which meant arms equipment. And indeed, if you were going off to fight a battle, you were definitely wearing armor and intended to swing your arms about wildly, weapon in hand, in defense of whatever you were fighting for in the first place. Hence comes the very literal meaning of being up in arms.

While the first published version of up in arms appears in the late 1590s, this is the official first use of the expression. However, nearly 300 years earlier, the spirit of the expression was understood and in use.

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4 Responses to “Up In Arms”

  1. …”those involved in the rebellion were, indeed, so upset that they were wearing articles of clothing with heraldic arms embroidered on certain articles of clothing by the mid-1550s.”

    You’ve taught me something; I always thought “up in arms” might be more about weaponry. My question is what exactly did it mean that the upset parties were wearing items of clothing with heraldic arms on them? I’m assuming that they wanted to put the name of their family behind their opinion. If that is so, did it result in action from whomever was in charge? I’m wondering is putting on the heraldic arms in times of unrest was some kind of known practice or signal.

    • I get the sense that it was akin to wearing gang colors to let people know not to overstep and cause trouble on their turf. I was pleasantly surprised at the history behind this expression. I dare say, I intend to do additional research on this to see what else I can learn about the customs of this era.

  2. Heather said

    Thanks for the information. I had a feeling “up in arms’ meant something along the lines of “taking up arms” as in armed rebellion.

    I find the history of phrases and idioms quite fascinating and it’s nice to see a blog devoted to something I thought only I was ever really interested in (from a hobbyist point of view)

    • Language is intriguing and watching how words may mean something in one era and then take on another meaning as years go by is a reflection of the people and the politics of the time. If you have idioms you’d like to know about that aren’t in the “A-Z Of Entries” let me know and I’ll see what I can find out for you. You’ll even get credit for making the suggestion when it’s published here …. under the heading “Friends Of Idiomation.”

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