Taking the edges off saber-rattling

Much diplomacy these days seems to consist of “saber-rattling.” Why is this old-fashioned-sounding term still part of the political lexicon?

Shane Dunlap/The Evening Sun/AP
Politicians don't wield swords these days, but if you listened to commentators, you might think they do. Above, the 1st Maryland Cavalry prepare to reenact the Battle of Fairfield during the 153rd anniversary of the Battle of Gettysburg, on July 2, 2016.

On the radio recently I heard a commentator complaining that the United States and North Korea were “saber-rattling.” Suddenly that term struck me as odd. I had an image of politicians in suits standing around, holding up swords and shaking them. I decided to investigate and found it everywhere in the news. A GOP senator is “[n]ervous about saber rattling on Venezuela”; Kim Jong Un is “ratcheting up his saber-rattling”; there is “saber-rattling in the Middle East.” Much diplomacy these days seems to consist of “saber-rattling.” Why is this old-fashioned-sounding term still part of the political lexicon?

Merriam-Webster defines saber-rattling as “overtly and often exaggeratedly threatening actions or statements ... that are meant to intimidate an enemy by suggesting possible use of force.” Though it appears as early as 1885, its usage took off around 1920, well after sabers had outlived their usefulness. Sabers are cavalry swords with a slightly curved blade and a sharp edge for slashing from horseback. They were first employed by the hussars, crack cavalry troops from Hungary, in the early 16th century. These were cutting-edge weapons at the time and were quickly adopted by troops across Europe. Union and Confederate cavalries carried sabers during the Civil War, and they were thought to be dashing and glamorous as well as terrifying to the foe when “cut[ting] great gashes in the atmosphere,” as one Union saber enthusiast described. By the late 19th century, however, guns had rendered them more or less obsolete. They are still part of many U.S. military uniforms but are for purely ceremonial occasions. 

Saber-rattling has connotations of posturing and blustering, like a parent telling a child, “If you don’t stop, I’ll ... I’ll ... do something.” The Bloomsbury Dictionary of Idioms asserts that the term comes from soldiers threatening to draw their blades: “The scary rattling sound of sabres being drawn was often more than enough to quell a disturbance or riot, without the soldiers having to use them.”

The term probably acquired its empty threat implication because sabers so obviously belong to the past. Even 150 years ago they were considered showy tools of intimidation. This is not to say that saber-rattling can’t have real and terrible consequences. It is all too easy for bluster to turn into battle.

Occasionally a rival branch of the military will use a related phrase. For example, when opposing sides are trading threats that involve naval power, it’s properly known as cutlass-rattling, but that phrase has never caught on. Now saber-rattling is used for all kinds of threatening language or behavior in a real war, a trade war, or just a fight in a faculty meeting over who gets to teach which classes.

You've read  of  free articles. Subscribe to continue.

Dear Reader,

About a year ago, I happened upon this statement about the Monitor in the Harvard Business Review – under the charming heading of “do things that don’t interest you”:

“Many things that end up” being meaningful, writes social scientist Joseph Grenny, “have come from conference workshops, articles, or online videos that began as a chore and ended with an insight. My work in Kenya, for example, was heavily influenced by a Christian Science Monitor article I had forced myself to read 10 years earlier. Sometimes, we call things ‘boring’ simply because they lie outside the box we are currently in.”

If you were to come up with a punchline to a joke about the Monitor, that would probably be it. We’re seen as being global, fair, insightful, and perhaps a bit too earnest. We’re the bran muffin of journalism.

But you know what? We change lives. And I’m going to argue that we change lives precisely because we force open that too-small box that most human beings think they live in.

The Monitor is a peculiar little publication that’s hard for the world to figure out. We’re run by a church, but we’re not only for church members and we’re not about converting people. We’re known as being fair even as the world becomes as polarized as at any time since the newspaper’s founding in 1908.

We have a mission beyond circulation, we want to bridge divides. We’re about kicking down the door of thought everywhere and saying, “You are bigger and more capable than you realize. And we can prove it.”

If you’re looking for bran muffin journalism, you can subscribe to the Monitor for $15. You’ll get the Monitor Weekly magazine, the Monitor Daily email, and unlimited access to CSMonitor.com.