Apologies, dear Reader, but this post has taken me far far too long. The story is now 10 days old, so in media terms it’s ancient history. But for the sake of the record, and because it may contain one or two slightly interesting bits, here it is anyway.
On 25th June 2019, TalkRadio’s Ross Kempsell asked Boris Johnson – one of two contestants hoping to become leader of the Conservative Party (and thereby to become the UK’s next Prime Minister) – what would be the first thing he’d do after he had “written those letters to the submarine commanders?”
Johnson was rather vague but promised extra spending on education, railways, roads, police…
It was only 30 or so seconds into the interview but Kempsell clearly knew he had to sharpen things up, and fast. He interrupted Johnson:
RK: …and on Brexit?
BJ: [reaching out to RK] …Brexit! We will of course be pushing our plan into action. [scratches head] And getting ready to [points finger at camera] come out on October the… [gestures to RK for a prompt]
BJ : Correct! Thirty-first.
RK: Come what may?
BJ: Come what may.
RK: Do or die?
BJ: Do or die. Come what may.
You can watch the interview and see TalkRadio’s transcript here.
(This is my own transcript. TalkRadio’s version simplifies the interchanges, understating the extent to which the interviewer coaches or nudges Johnson – in short, puts words in his mouth. Johnson obligingly regurgitates.)
“Do or die”
“Do or Die” created a mini-media storm and became the catchphrase of Johnson’s campaign thus far.
Here’s a small selection of sightings, as they appeared on Google’s “Top Stories” on 28/29 June 2019:
It didn’t take long for one of his earlier rivals, Rory Stewart, to tell Johnson that he’d blundered. As The Independent reported:
Brexit: Boris Johnson urged to clarify ‘do or die’ claim after cabinet minister points out phrase refers to suicidal army mission
International development secretary Rory Stewart says he is ‘troubled’ by comparison with disastrous Crimean War battle
Boris Johnson has been urged to clarify his “do or die” pledge to deliver Brexit by 31 October after a cabinet minister pointed out that the phrase originally referred to a disastrous British army mission.
Rory Stewart, the international development secretary, who initially stood against Mr Johnson in the Tory leadership race, said he was “troubled” by the current frontrunner’s language.
The phrase “do or die” originates from the poem “The Charge of the Light Brigade” by Alfred Tennyson, which is about British casualties during the Crimean War.
The Light Brigade of around 600 men suffered major losses after charging into Russian artillery fire during a battle in 1854, following a miscommunication between military commanders.
Mr Stewart called on Mr Johnson to “clarify” his comments and confirm that he did not see a no-deal Brexit as a kind of suicide mission.
He told the Press Association: “It was a very strange phrase to say ‘do or die’ because it’s taken from that Tennyson poem.
“I’m a little bit troubled by that. I hope he’s not setting it up in those kinds of terms. I don’t quite understand why he would agree with that kind of language.
“What I would hope he meant and I’d hope he’d clarify and say is that he’s going to try to deliver a Brexit that works for Britain…that this isn’t some sort of charge towards the guns.”
Mr Stewart had earlier tweeted paraphrasing the full section of the poem, which reads: “Theirs not to reason why, theirs but to do and die, into the valley of Death, rode the six hundred.”
[Source: The Independent.]
And then people started to point out that the phrase was not in fact “Do or die” but “Do AND die” (see e.g. this letter in The Guardian on 26 June).
Quite a different thing.
“Do OR die” implies there is no choice, and that a failure to act will necessarily result in defeat. But “do AND die” implies the act itself will inevitably also result in death. Not quite so compelling.
Tennyson was clear it was the latter he intended. When his wife Emily inadvertently slipped into “do or die” when making a fair copy of an early manuscript, Tennyson immediately corrected it .
As Shannon and Ricks say:
The line is one of Tennyson’s greatest evocations of duty. As the author, two years earlier, of the Ode on the Death of the Duke of Wellington, where thrice over he had tolled the word ‘duty’, he is sure to have been moved by every word of the original sentence in The Times (leader, 13 November): ‘The British soldier will do his duty, even to certain death, and is not paralyzed by feeling that he is the victim of some hideous blunder’. In ‘The Charge of the Light Brigade’, the word ‘duty’, unuttered, becomes not what the poem says but what it breathes.
[Edgar Shannon and Christopher Ricks, “The Charge of the Light Brigade”: The Creation of a Poem”, Studies in Bibliography, Volume 38 (1985) pp.29-30. ]
Soon media around the world around the world picked up on Johnson’s blunder, if that is indeed what it was.
One of the most detailed was in the US-magazine The Atlantic, which helpfully illustrated their article with a painting of the Charge of the Light Brigade:
(Except that it depicts the Charge of the Heavy Brigade – a common error. See my post on the subject here.)
Why the British Take Glory in Defeat
Boris Johnson inadvertently compared Brexit to the massacre of British troops at the Battle of Balaclava in 1854, a defeat immortalized in verse.
For a country with a rich history of victories, Britain has a curious tendency to celebrate the defeats.
“Do or Die”, “Do and Die”. The brevity and symmetry of sound and sight around the conjunction make the phrases remarkably resonant. I expect there’s a term for it in Classical rhetoric.
It certainly sounds like something Spartacus or Leonidas or some other military leader facing imminent extinction might have said.
I have no idea what Johnson thought he was saying. It may have been a misquotation of Tennyson, or the correct quotation of Robert Burns (which would have been no less bizarre, given that it concerns the defeat of the English by the Scots). But it’s more likely to have been just some fine phrase that sounds pretty good, particularly when a journalist suggests it to you.
But it seems the phrase “Do or Die” has a history much longer than Tennyson or Burns. The OED records these from the fifteenth century:
Than is þar nocht bot do or de.
Thewis Gud Women, 1487
Her is no chos bot owdir do or de.
Actis & Deidis Schir William Wallace, 1488
Translation: Now [there] is no choice but [to] either do or die.
[See the discussion here.]
Here is a Google NGram of instances of the two phrases in books published 1800-2008:
What fun making NGrams can be. Go to Google Books Ngram Viewer and plug in your word or phrase (separated by commas, if you want to make comparisons).
FYI, here’s the NGram for “Charge of the Light Brigade”:
In the highly unlikely event that someone wants to follow this up, I have put together an incomplete, unsequenced and largely unedited list of articles featuring “Do or Die” and “Do and Die” published in the last few days.