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.