Night of the long knives
Posted: 03 August 2007 10:52 AM   [ Ignore ]
Total Posts:  2232
Joined  2007-01-30

I had thought this a translation of a German phrase, as it’s usually connected with Hitler’s purge of the SA, but although the German phrase (Nacht der langen Messer) is an old one and pre-dates Hitler the original is apparently English.

Here’s OED:

2. Phr. (night of) the long knives: a treacherous massacre (as, according to legend, of the Britons by Hengist in 472, or of Ernst Roehm and his associates by Hitler on 29-30 June 1934); hence used allusively of any similarly decisive or ruthless action.
The massacre of the Britons is described by Geoffrey of Monmouth in Historia Regum Britanniæ Bk. VI. xv.

1862 BORROW Wild Wales II. xx. 226 Hengist had commanded..that..each Saxon should draw his long sax, or knife,..and should plunge it into the throat of his neighbour… This infernal carnage the Welsh have appropriately denominated the treachery of the long knives. 1891 E. C. BREWER Historic Note-Bk. 531/2 Long Knives (The Plot or Treachery of the). This was a treacherous conference to which Geoffrey of Monmouth tells us the chief Britons were invited by Hengist at Ambresbury; others say by Vortigern. Beside each Briton a Saxon was seated, armed with a long knife; and, at a given signal, each Saxon slew the Briton seated by his side. Geoffrey tells us the signal was the utterance of these words: Nemet oure Saxas, and that the number massacred was 460. 1936 R. OLDEN Hitler the Pawn xvi. 378 The consequence is massacre, ‘the night of the long knives’, a St. Bartholomew’s night.

Wikipedia has this but gives no indication just how old the phrase is in German.

The phrase “Night of the Long Knives” in the German language predates the massacre itself, and until it became synonymous with the purge, it referred generally to acts of vengeance.

Actaully none of the early cites in OED are figurative. Perhaps German was first with the figurative usage?

[ Edited: 03 August 2007 10:56 AM by aldiboronti ]
Posted: 03 August 2007 11:16 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 1 ]
Total Posts:  407
Joined  2007-02-14

Interesting. Here’s the Latin and English of the text (xvi.15):

hengistus noua prodicione usus. precepit commilitonibus suis ut unusquisque longum cultrum infra caligas absconditum haberet. Et cum colloquium securius tractarent britones. ipse daret eis hoc signum. nimet oure saxes. unusquisque paratus astantem britonem audaciter occuparet. atque abstractis cultris ocius ipsum iugularet. [Acton Griscom. 1929. The Historia Regum Britanniae of Geoffrey of Monmouth: With Contributions to the Study of Its Place in Early British History, p.377.]

Hengist then thought out a new method of betrayal. He ordered each of his soldiers to conceal a large dagger inside his boot. At some moment when, in apparent security, the Britons were discussing the subject in hand, Hengist himself would give his men this signal: ”Nimet oure saxes.” Each of them would then be ready to attack boldly the Briton standing beside him: in short, each should draw his dagger and without a moment of heistation cut his companion’s throat. [Translated by Lewis Thorpe for Penguin Classics.]

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