A chestnut too far.
Dear Word Detective: I’m curious about the phrase “in harm’s way.” Harm seems to be the only thing that has a trajectory through our lives; I’ve never heard of anyone being in health’s way, or pleasure’s way, or fortune’s way, for example. Where did this expression come from? — David Anderson.
Good question. One thing’s for certain about “in harm’s way.” In the immortal words of Madge, the Palmolive spokes-manicurist from the old TV commercials, we’re soaking in it. I haven’t kept count during the ongoing debates among the various presidential candidates (because I can’t seem to remember to turn on the TV). But I’d be amazed if the already remarkable popularity of the phrase in recent years hasn’t reached a new peak behind those podiums.
This is, of course, understandable coming from politicians speaking to a nation with troops serving in combat overseas. “In harm’s way” is a way to say “in grave danger” or “facing the possibility of being killed or wounded” without sounding too graphic or alarmist. But you have to flinch when “reputed mobster” John Gotti, Jr., uses the phrase in denouncing FBI agents for spreading unkind rumors about him: “It put my children in harm’s way, it put my family in harm’s way, 100%.” Something tells me that “in harm’s way” has finally jumped the shark.
Perhaps it’s because “harm” so often appears in a specific form from an identifiable source (illness, war, flood, etc.), while pleasure, health and even fortune may accrue from different sources, that we speak of harm having a “way” in the sense of a path or trajectory. If you’ve ever seen a tornado march across the horizon, it’s hard not to personify “harm” and note its deadly path.
Interestingly, the original use of “harm’s way” back in the 17th century stressed avoidance, in the phrase “out of harm’s way” (“People send Children … to School to keep them out of Harm’s way,” 1711). Even more intriguingly, early uses of the phrase included the sense of “preventing the doing of harm,” rather than “keeping safe” (“Some great persons … have been made sheriffs, to keep them out of harm’s way,” 1661).
The first use of “in” with “harm’s way” is usually ascribed to John Paul Jones, naval commander and hero of the American Revolution. Seeking a ship from the supportive French government in 1778, Jones wrote “I wish to have no connection with any ship that does not sail fast; for I intend to go in harm’s way.” The phrase was greatly popularized by the Otto Preminger film of the same name in 1965, which starred John Wayne, Kirk Douglas, Henry Fonda, Patricia Neal and a dozen other famous actors in a story set in the US Navy at the outbreak of World War II.