Yvonne Warburton, Online Publication Manager of the OED, writes about the trouble she had tracking down the first recorded occurrence of the phrase the thin red line: “It was generally believed to be associated with the Battle of Balaclava, which took place in 1854. It therefore seemed reasonable to assume that I would be able to find an 1854 first quotation, especially as the phrase was attributed in many later sources to Sir William Howard Russell, who was war correspondent for the Times during the Crimean War.” But it wasn’t nearly that simple, and the earliest citation they’ve found so far is from “a book by Russell called The British Expedition to the Crimea, published in 1887.” Well worth reading if you’re interested in the nitty-gritty of finding cites, and my thanks to aldiboronti at Wordorigins for bringing it to my attention!


  1. Mmmmmm….. baklava. It was worth the battle. The immortal words: “Baklava is now ours!”

  2. Russell is also famed for the exchange of telegrams with his editor, during the war —
    Russell: NOT A DAMNED NEW.
    The last recorded instance of ‘news’ as a plural?

  3. Terry Collmann says:

    Fascinating that Russell shouild change his original 1857
    “thin red streak topped with a line of steel”
    “thin red line tipped with steel”
    20 years later and at his fourth attempt at writing a description of the battle. No doubt which version of the phrase quote rolls around the mouth more satisfactorially. Popular misquotation often errs towards a happier-sounding version. Did Russell hear (or see) “thin red streak topped with a line of steel” misquoted as “thin red line” and decide to amend his own original to the better-sounding alternative?
    The battle of Balaclava, of course, also gave us the balaclava helmet, a knitted head covering enveloping everything except the face, like those chain mail helmets Norman knights sported, except in wool, which the British soldiers used to keep warm during the cold Crimean winter. British schoolboys still wore balaclavas (along with fingerless gloves, shorts and knee socks) in winter until at least the early 1960s. Haven’t seen a balaclava for decades, though – killed off, probably, by public ridicule, since while wearing one you looked like a total tosser …

  4. Aha, so that is what elderly ladies are always knitting in genteel 1930 mystery novels. I vaguely imagined a kind of net, something to throw over those colonial helmets , to keep off the flies perhaps. In the Netherlands they still inflicted balaclava helmets on small children in the seventies & eighties, preferably in lurid red or green. (Not that they’re not nice & warm in principle but in my memory they are always synthetical, stinking, and snot-covered).
    In Dutch the thing is called a bivak muts if it also has a piece between the mouth and nose.

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  6. Richard Hershberger says:

    I (an American) have a balaclava. In years past I engaged in winter backpacking, which is its own form of insanity. Winter backpackers wear balaclavas around camp, and especially while sleeping. Not so much while on the trail, because, well, yes: they look incredibly stupid and someone might see you…

  7. Stupid and yet quite menacing when worn to full advantage. Two great looks in one versatile garment.

  8. “”thin red streak topped with a line of steel” to “thin red line tipped with steel””
    The first phrase has a better cadence, though. Personally I’d go for “thin red line tipped with a streak of steel”.

  9. “yet quite menacing”
    Balaclavas are associated in my mind (and I suspect in many others of my generation) with IRA terrorists, who frequently wore them.

  10. The headpiece worn by some Muslim women arouses similar feelings; it is quite unnerving to see the driver of an oncoming vehicle done up in such a way.

  11. I wear my balaclava when cycling in cold weather.
    I wear my knee-socks in Australia. Or with my kilt.

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