Today’s Wordy Wednesday is the phrase “Up in arms”.
The phrase can be found in two of Shakespeare’s History Plays, which first appeared in print in the 1590s.
In both History Plays the phrase refers to the literal meaning of the term – to take up arms with the intent to use them in battle. To be ‘in arms’ referred to soldiers being equipped for combat; the extension of ‘up in arms’ implies they are not only equipped with weaponry, they are also in a state of readiness to fight.
March on, march on, since we are up in arms;
If not to fight with foreign enemies
Yet to beat down these rebels here at home
Richard III [IV. iv. 3361-63]
Here the term is used in its most literal sense. In this extract Richard III is declaring that as they are all armed and equipped – they are ready to march into battle to quell the rebels.
The princely Warwick, and the Nevils all,
Whose dreadful swords were never drawn in vain,
As hating thee, are rising up in arms:
And now the house of York, thrust from the crown
By shameful murder of a guiltless king
And lofty proud encroaching tyranny,
Burns with revenging fire; whose helpful colours
Advance our half-faced sun, striving to shine,
Under the which is writ ‘Invitis nubibus’
The commons here in Kent are up in arms:
Henry VI Part II: [IV. i. 2247-56]
In this Henry VI Part II extract, The Captain is taunting his captive, The Earl of Suffolk, and refers to Warwick and the Nevils as ‘rising up in arms’. They are rallying for battle and arming themselves in a state of rebellion and protestation. This foreshadows the figurative use of the phrase, which first appeared in the 1700s – to be ‘up in arms’ over a particular situation in a state of protest.
The Phrase Finder classifies the contemporary meaning of the phrase ‘up in arms’ to be ‘roused or incensed’.
Today the modern usage of the phrase to be ‘up in arms’ over a current situation implies outrage and indignant protest. It is most commonly used to mean that a group are ‘roused’ or ‘incensed’ to the point of which they are willing to take action and stand up for their cause. Of course, a population being ‘up in arms’ can still denote an armed rebellion in the literal sense. [Dictionary.com]
“The workers are ‘up in arms’ over the proposed pay cuts”. The fact that they are ‘up in arms’ indicates they are not just aggrieved; they are also ready to take action.
An interesting aside about the historical usage of the phrase ‘in arms’ is not only would the knights be bearing arms as in weaponry, they would also be bearing a crest of arms on their armour. Heraldic arms or a family’s ‘Coat of Arms’ was an integral component of organising feudal battles as the particular crest adorning soldiers’ armour denoted who their liege Lord was and what side they were fighting for.
George R.R. Martin’s epic world in A Game of Thrones recreates this heraldic tradition. Each house has their individual ‘Crest of Arms’ and motto. While House Stark has the direwolf as their sigil along with the words “Winter is coming”, the Lannister lion is their House’s sigil with the motto “Hear me roar”.
As I am from Scottish decent, my last name ‘Nicoll’ is from the Scottish clan MacLeod and our motto is ‘Hold fast’.
By Linda Nicoll
The American Heritage Dictionary of Idioms by Christine Ammer. Copyright 2003. Published by Houghton Mifflin Company.
Dictionary of American Slang and Colloquial Expressions by Richard A. Spears.Fourth Edition. Copyright 2007. Published by McGraw Hill.
The Free Dictionary, ‘Idioms’, 2013: http://idioms.thefreedictionary.com/up+in+arms [Accessed 20 March 2013]
Dictionary.com, ‘References’, 2013: http://dictionary.reference.com/browse/up+in+arms [Accessed 20 March 2013]
The Phrase Finder, ‘Meanings, 2013: http://www.phrases.org.uk/meanings/up-in-arms.html [Accessed 20 March 2013]
Musee Missisquoi Musuem, ‘Family History’, 2013, http://www.museemissisquoi.ca/index.html [Accessed 20 March 2013]
HBO, A Game of Thrones, ‘Sigils’, 2013, http://www.hbo.com [Accessed 20 March 2013]