Historically Speaking

Making sense of it all!

Archive for September 25th, 2021

Keep Your Powder Dry

Posted by Admin on September 25, 2021

If someone tells you to keep your powder dry, they are really telling you to remain cautious, stay calm, and be ready for a possible emergency or a sudden change for the worse. Some may claim it’s the ancestor idiom to the phrase take care but it really isn’t since take care doesn’t really cover everything keep your powder dry covers.

For those who may not understand what that means, this harkens back to the day when weapons required loose gunpowder to fire. For gunpowder to work properly, it must be kept dry.

INTERESTING SIDE NOTE 1: Gunpowder is known as one of the “Four Great Inventions of China” and was invented during the Tang Dynasty of the 9th century, and when guns appeared in the 13th century, gunpowder found another opportunity beyond arrows, rockets, bombs, and fire lances. It was particularly popular during the days of flintlock when powder and flintlock were carried in a horn slung to one side. It was susceptible to moisture, and if it wasn’t dry, it tended to clump and misfire instead of ignite and fire properly. By the 19th century, smokeless powder, nitroglycerin, and nitrocellulose were invented, and gunpowder saw its popularity decrease.

On 19 September 2020, the Washington Post reported on what Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said in the article, “Trump Says He Will Nominate Woman To Supreme Court Next Week.” It was clear what he meant when he used the idiom.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell privately told his members in a letter circulated Friday night to keep their powder dry on where they stand on proceeding with a confirmation fight this year.

The idiom was used in the 1945 movie, “Keep Your Powder Dry” starring Lana Turner (8 February 1921 – 29 June 1995), Laraine Day (13 October 1920 – 10 November 2007), and Susan Peter (3 July 1921 – 23 October 1952) as three Women’s Army Corps (WAC) recruits. Lana Turner’s character is a spoiled rich party girl who signs up in the hopes it will make her look more responsible to the trustees of her trust fund will give her the rest of her inheritance thereby leaving her free to party even more than she already does.

Susan Peter’s character is that of a young wife whose husband is in the Army who is doing something productive to help the cause while her husband is fighting, and Laraine Day’s character is an Army brat who can’t wait to join the military so she can be a soldier every bit as good as her father.

INTERESTING SIDE NOTE 2: Lana Turner’s character is top of her class when it comes to identifying aircrafts but not because she’s an excellent student while in class. It has to do with how many pilots she dated before she joined the corps.

INTERESTING SIDE NOTE 3: Agnes Moorehead (6 December 1900 – 30 April 1974) — which many remember as Samantha Steven’s mother, Endora, in the 1960s series “Bewitched” — plays the role of the company commander, exuding an understated but unmistakable authority. She plays the role with dignity and compassion without breaking the military chain of command.

Margaret Mead used the idiom in the title of her book “And Keep Your Powder Dry: An Anthropologist Looks at America” published in 1943.

The Times Literary Supplement of 1908 made use of the idiom in this passage:

In thus keeping his powder dry the bishop acted most wisely, though he himself ascribes the happy result entirely to observance of the other half of Cromwell’s maxim.

INTERESTING SIDE NOTE 4: The Times Literary Supplement was a supplement to the British daily national newspaper The Times (which was known as The Daily Universal Register from 1785 through to 1788 when it changed its name) when it first appeared in 1902 but by 1914, it was its own separate publication. Among the distinguished writers and authors who contributed to the publication are T.S. Eliot, Henry James, and Virginia Woolf.

The idiom appeared in print in 1888 in the book “Irish Minstrelsy: Being A Selection of Irish Songs, Lyrics, and Ballads with Notes and Introduction by Henry Halliday Sparling” in a poem by Irish British Army officer, Member of the Royal Irish Academy, and Commissioner of the Treasury of Ireland, Lieutenant-Colonel William Blacker (1 September 1777 – 25 November 1855) and publishing under a pseudonym. Every stanza ends with a slightly different variation of the idiom, but always ends with keep your powder dry.

INTERESTING SIDE NOTE 5: The poem was originally published in 1834 in The Dublin University Magazine titled “Oliver’s Advice: An Orange Ballad” and was a well-known poem of over fifty years by the time it was printed in the 1887 publication.

INTERESTING SIDE NOTE 6: William Blacker and his cousin, Valentine Blacker (19 October 1778 – 4 February 1825) were both lieutenant colonels in the British Army as well as published authors. Sometimes they published under pseudonyms (William Blacker occasionally published under the name of Fitz Stewart), and this is why there are instances were they are confused with each other.

In the midst of the American Civil War, Father C. Mayer wrote an arrangement of a song titled, “Boys, Keep Your Powder Dry: A Soldier’s Song.” It was published by Blackmar & Brothers, and lithographed by B. Duncan and Company of Columbia, South Carolina in 1863. The idiom was used as the last line in each verse as well as in the chorus.

Not they who are determined to conquer or to die;
And harken to this caution, “Boys, keep your powder dry.”

Across the ocean and back in England, Punch magazine was having a grand time with politics on 25 February 1859 when it reported on Lord Palmerston’s efforts to alert the House of Commons to what he felt was the menacing aspect of continental affairs. It was printed in the same column that Mr. Punch advised Queen Victoria to keep her powder dry. The column was followed by a poem that addressed the issue of keeping her powder dry, as well as a cartoon.

Now shortly before Lieutenant-Colonel William Blacker’s poem was published in 1834, the idiom was bandied about by the Lords sitting for Parliament in the United Kingdom. One such occasion was 28 February 1832, in the discussion of education in Ireland was the subject, when William Pleydell-Bouverie (11 May 1779 – 9 April 1869), 3rd Earl of Radnor stated:

On that occasion, Mr. Archdal concluded his speech by saying, “My friends, I will now only add the words used by Oliver Cromwell to his army, when marking through a ford, ‘My boys trust in the Lord, and keep your powder dry.'”

Trust in God and keep your powder dry” is repeatedly attributed to Oliver Cromwell (25 April 1599 – 3 September 1658). It is claimed that when Cromwell’s troops were about to cross a river to attack the enemy, he concluded his address to the troops with this idiom.

Allegedly, Oliver Cromwell said this to his regiment in 1642 when it was about to attack the enemy at the Battle of Edgehill, and allegedly Oliver Cromwell said this to the soldiers in 1650 at the Battle of Dunbar, and allegedly Oliver Cromwell said this every time there was a battle that involved crossing a river to get to the enemy’s side.

But did Oliver Cromwell ever say this? According to the Cromwell Museum there isn’t any evidence he ever said that. None. Not even once.

That doesn’t mean Oliver Cromwell didn’t say it, only that there’s no proof he said it. Maybe he said it, then again, maybe he didn’t. At the end of the day, however, it is very sound advice, don’t you agree?

Idiomation tags this expression to the 1820s with the earliest published version found in the 1832 papers that show the 3rd Earl of Radnor using the idiom indicating others understood what he meant when he talked about keeping one’s powder dry.

But who said it first is still up in the air.

To add a little extra fun to today’s entry, here’s “Keep Your Powder Dry” from the movie of the same name (back in the 1940s, face powder was the kind of make-up most women wore so enjoy the double meaning of the expression keep your powder dry).

Posted in Idioms from the 16th Century, Idioms from the 18th Century, Idioms from the 19th Century | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a Comment »