Historically Speaking

Making sense of it all!

The Camel’s Nose Is Under The Tent

Posted by Elyse Bruce on March 29, 2016

A friend asked me where the saying the camel’s nose is too far under the tent originated as he’d recently heard it used in conversation between friends in public.  For those who aren’t familiar with the idiom, it means something small and seemingly harmless can lead to something much bigger and considerably more dangerous unless it’s stopped in its tracks.  It’s just another way of saying:  Give them an inch and they’ll take a mile.

Oddly enough, the slippery slope fallacy” in arguments is also called the “camel’s nose fallacy.”

The expression sounds very exotic and not very common, however, Idiomation soon learned that the expression isn’t as uncommon as one might think!

On March 26, 2016 the Think Advisor website published an article titled, “The Fiduciary Effect On Recruiting.”  The article addressed the issue of the advisor job market and the fiduciary standards that are part of that market.  The second paragraph in this article made use of a variation of the idiom.

Once the camel’s nose is in the tent, the rest of the camel can’t be far behind. It’s not feasible for an advisor to service accounts with two different sets of standards.

Back on August 12, 1998, American Patriot Friends Network website published “This Raises A Burning Question: Should Native Australians Pay U.S. Taxes?”  It seemed like an odd question in light of the fact that most people wouldn’t think a resident of one country should pay taxes to another country unless they had earned income in the other country over the past year.   The article, however, wasn’t about Aborigines at all.  It was about how churches in the U.S. should be perceived as invisible for purposes of taxation just as Aborigines are.  As the article began to wrap up, the writer included this quote with a slightly modified version of the idiom:

As Pastor Dan Little sees it, “Either way we win.” If the church loses, Little shared, they expose the American system to be anti-Christ. “If we win, we back the camel’s nose out of the tent a little.”

In 1958, U.S. Senator Barry Goldwater used the idiom when stating his opposition to the National Defense Education Act, a science initiative implemented by President Dwight D. Eisenhower, and signed into law on September 2, 1958.   It was described as being “an Act to strengthen the national defense and to encourage and assist in the expansion and improvement of educational programs to meet critical national needs and for other purposes.” Senator Goldwater waste no time in stating:

This bill and the foregoing remarks of the majority remind me of an old Arabian proverb: “If the camel once gets his nose in the tent, his body will soon follow.” If adopted, the legislation will mark the inception of aid, supervision, and ultimately control of education in this country by the federal authorities.

In Volume 37 of “Railway World” published on June 10, 1893, the idiom was used in the article, “Steam and Electric Railways.”  The weekly magazine was published every Saturday from its head office at 137 South Fifth Street in Philadelphia (PA) and commanded a hefty four dollars per annum subscription fee — five dollars if your subscription was mailed to an address abroad.  The agent for Great Britain was one Frederic Algar headquartered in London.  And this is what the magazine had to say about electric railways.

Electric railways are emulating the camel that humbly sought permission to put his nose inside the tent, and soon afterward ejected the unsuspicious owner of the tent aforesaid.  Under the plain title of “street railways” they are gaining possession of highways already opened at public expense.

As Idiomation continued to search for the origins of this phrase, a number of sources identified it as either part of a Bedouin parable or part of an Arab parable that asserts this to be a fact:  If the camel is allowed to stick his nose in the tent, before long, the whole camel will be in the tent.

Searching for this fable, one was found that had been published in 1858 that talked of an Arab miller who allowed his camel to stick his nose into his bedroom, followed by other parts of his body, until the camel was completely in the bedroom where he refused to leave even when asked to do so.

But most people — even those in Victorian times — thought of Arabs as living in tents and not in houses with traditional bedrooms, and so a second version of the fable found its way into people’s imaginations.  This is how it read.

One cold night, as an Arab sat in his tent, a Camel thrust the flap of the tent aside, and looked in.

“I pray thee, master,” he said, “let me put my head within the tent, for it is cold without.”

“By all means, and welcome,” said the Arab; and the Camel stretched his head into the tent.

“If I might but warm my neck, also,” he said, presently.

“Put your neck inside,” said the Arab.

Soon the Camel, who had been turning his head from side to side, said again, “It will take but little more room if I put my fore legs within the tent. It is difficult standing without.”

“You may also put your fore legs within,” said the Arab, moving a little to make room, for the tent was very small.

“May I not stand wholly within?” asked the Camel, finally. “I keep the tent open by standing as I do.”

“Yes, yes,” said the Arab. “I will have pity on you as well as on myself. Come wholly inside.”

So the Camel came forward and crowded into the tent. But the tent was too small for both.

“I think,” said the Camel, “that there is not room for both of us here. It will be best for you to stand outside, as you are the smaller; there will then be room enough for me.”

There was a scuffle and the much stronger and bigger camel pushed his master out of the tent.

Now the Camel slept comfortably in the warm tent while his Master shivered outside in the freezing cold.

The moral of this story is this:  Never let a camel get his nose in your tent. When you give the foolish a little, it is never enough. They are never satisfied until they have it all.

Despite Idiomation’s most ardent efforts, an earlier published reference about the camel’s nose under the tent couldn’t be found.  Idiomation assumes that the story with the exotic locale made it easier to promote the moral to those living in the Victorian era, and as such it pegs the idiom to about 1858.

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