The Grammarphobia Blog

Do the bridges you burn light the way?

Q: I was wondering if you might know the origin of the saying “may the bridges I burn light the way.” I did a little googling and found something that says it’s from Beverly Hills 90210, but I have a hard time believing it was original with the show’s writers.

A: We did a little googling ourselves as well as searching in several Newsbank databases, including the Archive of America and America’s News.

As far as we can tell, the writers on the TV show did indeed come up with that remark. Here’s the relevant exchange from a 1994 episode:

“Brandon Walsh: Dylan, at this point in time, I’m just about the only friend you’ve got. You sure you want to do this? Push me away like you’ve done to everyone else?

“Dylan McKay: Yeah! May the bridges I burn light the way!”

The remark is also the title of a 2009 CD by the one-man band Bass Clef, a k a Ralph Cumbers.

Of course people have been burning bridges both literally and figuratively for quite a while. The figurative expression “to burn one’s bridges behind one” showed up in the late 19th century, according to citations in the Oxford English Dictionary.

The OED’s earliest example is from Mark Twain’s 1892 novel The American Claimant: “It might be pardonable to burn his bridges behind him.”

The dictionary defines the expression as “to burn one’s boats,” which is defined elsewhere in the OED as “to cut oneself off from all chance of retreat.”

Winston A. Reynolds, in a 1959 article in the journal American Speech, notes that Americans prefer the bridges version of the expression while Britons prefer the boats version.

Reynolds adds that the boats expression, which can be found in Spanish, French, Chinese, Dutch, German, and Latin, is the older version.

He suggests that the origin of the expression lies in historical and legendary accounts of burning one’s boats to encourage military victories in antiquity.

The earliest example of this, he writes, is in a seventh-century BC work attributed to Tso Kiu-Ming, a contemporary of Confucius:

“Miu-Kung, the Earl of Tsin, invaded the marquisate of Tsin: after crossing the river he burnt his boats, took the castle of Wang-Kwan, and even approached its capital.”

Reynolds cites Tu Yii, a third-century AD Chinese scholar, as explaining that Miu-Kung burned his boats to show “his determination never to return without a victory.”

Check out our books about the English language