For Want of A Nail (proverb) - Historical References

Historical References

Short Variation

For want of a nail the shoe was lost;
For want of a shoe the horse was lost;
For want of a horse the battle was lost;
For the failure of battle the kingdom was lost—

All for the want of a horse-shoe nail. -Unknown The proverb is found in a number of forms, starting as early back as the 14th century: Variation

For want of a nail the shoe was lost,
for want of a shoe the horse was lost;
and for want of a horse the rider was lost;
being overtaken and slain by the enemy,

all for want of care about a horse-shoe nail. -Benjamin Franklin
The Way to Wealth (1758) Variation

A little neglect may breed mischief ...
for want of a nail, the shoe was lost;
for want of a shoe the horse was lost;

and for want of a horse the rider was lost. -Benjamin Franklin
Poor Richard's Almanac, preface (1758)
  • "For sparinge of a litel cost, Fulofte time a man hath lost, The large cote for the hod."; For sparing a little cost often a man has lost the large coat for the hoodlum. (c 1390 John Gower, Confessio Amantis v. 4785–4787)
  • The earliest reference to the full proverb may refer to the death of Richard III of England at the Battle of Bosworth Field. This short variation of the proverb (shown to the right), was published in "Fifty Famous People" by James Baldwin. The story associated with the proverb, describing the unhorsing of King Richard during battle, would place the proverb's origin after the Battle of Bosworth on 22 August 1485. It should be noted that historically Richard's horse was merely mired in the mud. In the story, the proverb and its reference to losing a horse is directly linked to King Richard famously shouting "A Horse! A Horse! My Kingdom for a Horse!", as depicted in Act V, Scene 4 from the Shakespeare play Richard III, which was written circa 1591. It's interesting to note that Kings are often considered Knights as well, which links the "Knight" variation to this story, and it also explains the "kingdom" reference prevalent in many of the variations. Note the similarities of the French quotation below by Jean Molinet, which is contemporary with this event. Even the later Franklin variations (shown at right) – printed during conflict between England and America, when American culture and politics were shedding any reference to Kings and England – would have the references to a King stripped out of a popular proverb, further circumstantially enforcing the argument that this story is the source of the original proverb. Either year – 1485 for King Richards death or 1591 for the Shakespeare play – the combined events in the story from "Fifty Famous People" plus the inclusion of the full proverb predate any other reference to a full causal chain of events; nail – shoe – horse – followed by at least one other dependent loss (i.e. rider, knight, battle, kingdom).
  • Fr. "Par ung seul clou perd on ung bon cheval; by just one nail one loses a good horse. (c 1507 Jean Molinet, Faictz Dictz D., v768).
  • "The French-men haue a military prouerbe; 'The losse of a nayle, the losse of an army'. The want of a nayle looseth the shooe, the losse of shooe troubles the horse, the horse indangereth the rider, the rider breaking his ranke molests the company, so farre as to hazard the whole Army". (1629 Thomas Adams (clergyman), "The Works of Thomas Adams: The Sum Of His Sermons, Meditations, And Other Divine And Moral Discourses", p. 714")
  • For want of a naile the shoe is lost, for want of a shoe the horse is lost, for want of a horse the rider is lost. (1640 George Herbert Outlandish Proverbs no. 499)
  • ‘Don't care’ was the man who was to blame for the well-known catastrophe: ‘For want of a nail the shoe was lost, for want of a shoe the horse was lost, and for want of a horse the man was lost.’ (1880 Samuel Smiles, Duty)
  • Benjamin Franklin included a version of the rhyme in his Poor Richard's Almanack. (Benjamin Franklin, Poor Richards Almanack, June 1758, The Complete Poor Richard Almanacks, facsimile ed., vol. 2, pp. 375, 377)
  • You bring your long-tailed shovel, an' I'll bring me navvy . We mighten' want them, an', then agen, we might: for want of a nail the shoe was lost, for want of a shoe the horse was lost, an' for want of a horse the man was lost—aw, that's a darlin' proverb, a daarlin'.(1925 S. O'casey Juno & Paycock i. 16)
  • During World War II, this verse was framed and hung on the wall of the Anglo-American Supply Headquarters in London, England.

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