Q: I see the expression “not on my watch” all over the place these days. I assume it began life as a naval usage. Right?
A: The noun “watch” has been used for hundreds of years by soldiers, sailors, and officers of the law to mean a period of vigil on land or at sea. It’s unclear whose usage inspired “not on my watch.”
The earliest example we’ve seen for the expression cites a sailor, but he uses it figuratively to mean “no way” or “absolutely not.” A few years later, a police officer on a night watch uses it literally in the sense of “This won’t happen while I’m on duty.”
That early figurative example, tracked down by the lexicographer Jonathan Lighter, is from the March 17, 1907, issue of the Duluth (MN) News Tribune. It appears in an account of a brawl at a Bowery bar in New York City:
“Jack had started to meander on his way, but Tom pinched him and stung him a fifty for the bunch of busted glass. ‘Not on my watch,’ says Jack, and the two mixed it.”
(Jack Rollings, a sailor on shore leave from the USS Alabama, had broken a mirror and refused the demand of Tom Sharkey, the owner, for restitution.)
The earliest literal example that we’ve found (from the May 29, 1911, issue of the San Francisco Call) describes the response of Capt. Steve Bunner, night chief of detectives at the city’s central station, when a man threatened to commit suicide:
“ ‘Not on my watch,’ said Bunner. He pushed the button and two large policemen appeared. ‘Take this man to the detention hospital,’ he said.”
The usage is quite popular now, as you’ve noticed. The Kentucky Secretary of State, Alison Lundergan Grimes, used it recently in commenting on the presidential voter fraud commission’s request for registration information:
“There’s not enough bourbon here in Kentucky to make this request seem sensible. Not on my watch are we going to be releasing sensitive information that relates to the privacy of individuals.” (From the June 30, 2017, issue of the Hill.)
Another version, “not under my watch,” is also popular. The first example we’ve found is from the Sept. 15, 2000, issue of the Globe and Mail (Toronto).
John Hayter, chairman and chief executive officer at Vickers & Benson, explains why he supported the sale of the struggling Canadian advertising agency to Havas Advertising of Paris:
“There is absolutely no glory in overseeing the slow demise of Vickers & Benson. We have been a proud Canadian agency for 76 years, and not under my watch was I going to see it slowly, slowly fade away.”
When the noun “watch” showed up in Anglo-Saxon times (spelled wæcce or wæccan in Old English), it referred to wakefulness, especially keeping awake for guarding, observing, and the like, according to the Oxford English Dictionary.
The first OED example is from King Ælfred’s translation (circa 888) of De Consolatione Philosophiæ, a sixth-century treatise by the Roman philosopher and statesman Boethius:
“Hu micele wæccan & hu micle unrotnesse se hæfð þe ðone won willan hæfð on þisse worulde” (“How great the watch and how great the grief of someone with wicked desires in this world”).
This Middle English example is from Confessio Amantis (1393), a long poem by John Gower about the confessions of an aging lover:
“So mot I nedes fro hire wende / And of my wachche make an ende” (“So I must needs go from her and make an end of my watch”).
Over the next two centuries, the noun “watch” came to mean people on guard or observation, as well as their period of duty, especially at night. The term was used for watches in towns, on military posts, and aboard ships.
Here’s an example from Shakespeare’s tragedy Macbeth, first performed in the early1600s: “As I did stand my watch vpon the Hill / I look’d toward Byrnane, and anon me thought / The Wood began to moue.”
This biblical example is from the King James Version of 1611: “I will stand vpon my watch, and set mee vpon the towre, and will watch to see what he will say vnto me.”
And here’s a nautical example from The Generall Historie of Virginia, New-England, and the Summer Isles (1624), by Capt. John Smith:
“When we had run 30. leagues we had 40. fadom, then 70. then 100. After 2. or 3. Watches more we were in 24. fadoms.”
The OED suggests that the observation sense of “watch” evolved from the periods “into which the night was anciently divided.” The Israelites divided the night into three periods, the Greeks into four or five, and the Romans into four, according to Oxford.
Interestingly, “in my watch” and “upon my watch” showed up in English before “on my watch.” All three expressions originally meant to be on duty as a watchman or sentinel.
The oldest of these phrases in the OED comes from the Coverdale Bible of 1535:
“Whyle they are yet stondinge in the watch, the dores shall be shut and barred. And there were certayne citesyns of Ierusalem appoynted to be watch-men, euery one in his watch” (from Nehemiah 7:3).
The dictionary’s first example for “upon my watch” is in the passage from the King James Version of 1611 cited above.
The OED doesn’t have an example for “on my watch.” The earliest we’ve found is from the March 1733 issue of the London Magazine:
“I was on my Watch in the Temple that Night the Murder was done; and nothing past but Gentlemen going to their Chambers” (from an account of the trial of Sarah Malcolm, a laundress hanged for three murders).