The Grammarphobia Blog

Falling on one’s sword

Q: It seems to me that the phrase “fall on one’s sword” has been overused and watered down to the point of meaninglessness. At one time it meant to commit suicide, but it’s now used to describe a minor mea culpa. The public editor at the New York Times, for example, recently referred to the sports editor’s acknowledgement of a mistake as “falling on his sword.”

A: The practice of committing suicide by running oneself through with a sword is thousands of years old—probably as old as swords themselves. 

The English expression “to fall on one’s sword” is much younger, naturally, but it’s difficult to say just when it first showed up. We do know that it appeared in the first English translation of the Bible, in the late 14th century.

The Oxford English Dictionary says that in Bible translations, to “fall on” a sword means “to throw oneself upon” it.

The OED gives an example from the 1382 Wycliffe translation of the Bible: “So Saul caught his swerd and felle vpon it.” A 1611 version of the Bible has “Therfore Saul tooke a sword, and fell upon it.”

In Virgil’s Aeneid, written in Latin in the first century BC, the lovelorn Dido, queen of Carthage, does away with herself in this grisly manner, stabbing herself with Aeneas’ sword as her horrified attendants look on.

When Sir William Mure translated Dido and Aeneas (the early books of the Aeneid) into English in about 1614, he wrote: “Her Dams attending see their mistris fall / On piercing sword.”

Here’s another 17th-century citation, from Sir Robert Stapylton’s 1647 translation of Juvenal’s Sixteen Satyrs: “He converted his fury upon himself, and … fell upon his own sword.”

Similarly, Plutarch’s Lives has a passage describing how Brutus handed his sword to his friend Strato, then “he fell on the point, and died.” (From an 1832 translation by John and William Langhorne.)

For a later example, here’s Richard Le Gallienne, writing in From a Paris Garret (1936), a collection of columns written for the New York Sun:

“Vatel … committed suicide by falling on his sword … because the ‘roti’ at the twenty-fifth table was wanting.” (The reference is to a 17th-century chef who took his job too seriously.)

These days, “to fall on one’s sword” doesn’t necessarily mean to commit suicide. It can mean to sacrifice one’s career and livelihood in admitting an error, like an executive or other public figure who resigns in shame.

A more watered-down usage—meaning simply to accept the blame or responsibility for something—has recently emerged.

That’s how Arthur S. Brisbane, the Times’s public editor, used the expression in his Dec. 26, 2010, column.

It’s our opinion that with this new usage, the phrase loses a lot of its edge (no pun intended).

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