March 12, 2004

Harm's way: in and out since 1661

Claire over at Anggarrgoon cites Science Friday for a couple of "mixed metaphors", one of them being "... all our soldiers out in harm's way ...", which she characterizes as "a cute variation of the 'out of harm's way' idiom".

But "in harm's way" is an idiom in its own right, with 100,000 ghits to 54,200 for "out of harm's way." It's the title of at least six books and many articles, as well as a power metal band.

It's been around for a while: the OED has (in the entry for nicely) 1677 MANTON Serm. Ps. cxix, civ. Wks. 1872 VIII. 5 To stand nicely upon terms of duty is to run in harm's way.

The OED has eleven quotes including "out of harm's way" to just this one instance of "in harm's way", and gives "out of harm's way" its own subsense citation: harm, n. 1.c., first quotation 1661 FULLER Worthies (1840) I. xviii. 61 Some great persons..have been made sheriffs, to keep them out of harm's way.

Still, "in harm's way" has made it into the English lexicon, if not into the OED. Maybe it was a cute variation on "out of harm's way" in 1677, but by now it's just another cliché.

Of course, what Claire doubtless meant to point out was that "out in harm's way" combines the two normally opposite forms of the cliché in one doubly-resonant sequence.

Posted by Mark Liberman at March 12, 2004 03:38 PM