Dear Word Detective: How old is the phrase “no man’s land,” and where did it first appear? I always associate it with the First World War, and that hellish dead zone between the opposing trench lines, but I am reading McMurtry’s “Telegraph Days” right now, and the characters use it to describe the area surrounding the town, which is presumably Texas badlands. The novel is set in 1876, and I have great respect for the author’s superb rendering of the dialect of the time, so it leads me to think the phrase is, then, much older. How far back does it go? — Chris.
That’s a good question. I’ve never actually read any of Larry McMurtry’s books (gasps of astonishment duly noted) because I am allergic to Westerns (cue scattered booing and flying vegetables). I’ve read enough about his books to know that they occupy an artistic rung well above the Louis L’Amour genre, but still. Maybe it’s the horses. Horses have always annoyed me. I am, on the other hand, a big fan of his son, singer-songwriter James McMurtry. About a year ago, Ron Rosenbaum sardonically suggested in Slate that Mr. McMurtry’s epic song “Choctaw Bingo” be made the new US national anthem. I wouldn’t go that far (things around here are depressing enough already), but it is a truly great song.
Your respect for Larry McMurtry’s attention to linguistic detail is well-placed, because it’s entirely plausible that characters in 1876 would have used “no man’s land” in the sense you mention.
The earliest occurrence of “no man’s land” found so far in print (in the form “nomanneslonde”) is from the middle of the 14th century, in the sense of “a piece of uninhabited (and unowned) land; a desolate place.” (The equivalent in Old English was “none man’s land” or “nanesmaneslande.”) According to the Oxford English Dictionary (OED), “nomanneslonde” was often used as the name of a specific place, often just beyond some boundary or between two established boundaries, e.g., between two towns. For instance, it was, early on, used to mean a piece of ground just outside the north wall of the city of London, England, designated as a place for the execution of condemned criminals.
“No man’s land” is still very much in use in this sense of “vacant, uninhabited and desolate land” (“We … went out to the commercial strip in the no man’s land beyond the town boundary,” White Noise, Don DeLillo, 1985), and this would fit perfectly with the sense you describe in McMurtry’s novel.
The use of “no man’s land” to mean “the terrain between two opposing (usually entrenched) armies” (OED) was definitely popularized (if that’s the right word) during World War I, but this military sense dates back to at least 1864 (“The intermediate country is a sort of No-man’s-land, in which numerous warring small tribes are kept in an excited and barbarous state by an extensive importation of firearms.”). The phrase has also been used in a more general sense of “forbidden area” since at least 1926 (“One of the Sunday newspapers had given the bastards enough publicity to make Cheltenham a No Man’s Land area for his old fraternity,” 1972), and “no man’s land” also has been used since the 1930s to mean the area of a tennis court between the baseline and the service line, considered a bad place to hang out during a game one would like to win.
The “no man’s” part of “no man’s land” would seem to need no explanation (no man owns it, right?), but it’s a bit more interesting than it first appears. “No man” (or “nanne mon”) in Old English up through the 19th century was a fixed phrase, the equivalent of “nobody” or “no one.” So “no man’s land” originally meant “nobody’s land,” referring to ownership, and not “land where no man is safe,” as the military use of the phrase has often been interpreted.