November 16, 2009

The day John Paul Jones planted the phrase “in harm’s way” into our language


In 1778, American Navy Captain John Paul Jones went to France, hoping to persuade the French government to give him a ship to use in the American colonies’ rebellion against the British.

Toward that end, he wrote a letter to Monsieur Le Ray de Chaumont, dated November 16, 1778. In it, he said:

       “I wish to have no Connection with any Ship that does not Sail fast
        for I intend to go in harm's way.”

His phrase “in harm’s way” has since become a common figure of speech, meaning “in the path of danger.”

Is is most often used to refer to men and women in the military, who are sent “in harm’s way” during wartime.

Not long after Jones wrote his letter to Chaumont, the French government gave him a frigate that he named the Bonhomme Richard.

On September 23, 1779, Jones and the crew of the Bonhomme Richard fought their famous battle off the coast of England against the British war ship Serapis.

At one point, the Bonhomme Richard seemed to be sinking. So, the captain of the Serapis asked Jones if he would surrender.

That’s when Jones supposedly gave his legendary reply: “I have not yet begun to fight.”

After lashing the Bonhomme Richard to the Serapis and fighting ferociously, the Americans won the battle and the crew of the Serapis surrendered to them.

In 1962, James Bassett’s bestselling World War II novel, Harm's Way, helped make this term taken from Jones’s letter more widely used than ever.

In 1965, the novel was made into an epic movie under the title In Harm's Way, further enhancing the use and recognition of the phrase.

I haven’t read the novel, but I have seen the movie. If you haven’t, you should.

In Harm’s Way is justifiably considered one of the greatest war movies ever made. It was produced and directed by Otto Preminger and stars John Wayne, Kirk Douglas, Henry Fonda, Patricia Neal, Tom Tryon, Paula Prentiss and Dana Andrews.

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