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"For Want of a Nail" is a proverbial rhyme showing that small actions can result in large consequences.

For Want of a Nail

For want of a nail the shoe was lost.
For want of a shoe the horse was lost.
For want of a horse the rider was lost.
For want of a rider the battle was lost.
For want of a battle the kingdom was lost.
And all for the want of a horseshoe nail.


Analysis

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 knight was lost,
for want of a knight the battle was lost,
for want of a battle the kingom was lost.
So it a kingdom was lost - all for want of a nail.

-JLA: The Nail
DC Comics, 1998

This proverb has been around in many forms for centuries (see history below), and describes a situation where permitting some small undesirable situation will allow gradual and inexorable worsening. The rhyme is thus a good illustration of the "The butterfly effect", and ideas presented in chaos theory, involving sensitive dependence on initial conditions; the initial condition being the presence or absence of the horseshoe nail.[1]

An important thing to note is that these chains of causality are only seen in hindsight. Nobody ever lamented, upon seeing his unshod horse, that the kingdom would eventually fall because of it.[1]

A somewhat similar idea is referred to in the metaphor known as The Camel's nose.

Historical references

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
Poor Richard's Almanac
  • Cf. late 15th-cent. Fr. par ung seul clou perd on ung bon cheval, by just one nail one loses a good horse;.(c 1390 Gower Confessio Amantis v. 4785).[2]
  • For sparinge of a litel cost Fulofte time a man hath lost The large cote for the hod [hood].(Unknown)[2]
  • 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 T. Adams Works 714)[2]
Horseshoes from World War I
  • 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)[2]
  • ‘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 S. Smiles Duty x.)[2]
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)
  • You bring your long-tailed shovel, an' I'll bring me navvy [device for excavating earth]. 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)[2]
  • During World War II, this verse was framed and hung on the wall of the Anglo-American Supply Headquarters in London, England.[4]

Modern day references

Along with the long history of the proverb listed above, it has continued to be referenced since the mid 20th century in modern culture. Examples include:

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Government

Literary

Musical

  • Todd Rundgren's song "The Want of a Nail" from his album Nearly Human uses the rhyme as a metaphor for a man who has lived his entire life without love, and how, if you "multiply it a billion times" and "spread it all over the world," things fall apart.
  • A cover of Todd Rundgren's song "The Want Of A Nail" is also used in the movie "Camp" as the cast is introduced at the end of the film.
  • Aesop Rock's song "No City" from his album None Shall Pass samples a voice reading the proverb, setting the tone for the idiosyncratic rap.
  • Tom Waits's song "Misery Is the River of the World" from his album Blood Money includes the line "for want of a nail, a shoe was lost" as well as several other variations on the theme.
  • Israeli songwriter Naomi Shemer wrote a translated version of the song called HaKol Biglal Masmer (All Because of a Nail).

Cinema and television

  • The title of the season two episode of M*A*S*H (TV series), "For Want of a Boot", is adapted from the proverb. The episode's concept itself is also based on the proverb, with the character of Hawkeye going through a convoluted process involving several camp personnel, in order to get a new boot.
  • In the movie The Fast and the Furious: Tokyo Drift, the proverb was used by Kamata (Sonny Chiba) to explain to his nephew the result of a small detail being overlooked.
  • In the episode of USA's Monk (TV series), "Mr. Monk at Your Service"[6], Monk quotes the proverb after being challenged by an employee that suggest a fork being a centimeter off center wasn't a problem. Monk: "For the want of a nail, the kingdom was lost."
  • In the 1982 movie The Verdict, Ed Concannon (James Mason) uses the proverb, "for want of a shoe the horse was lost" to his disciples to describe what the case has become after Frank Galvin turned down the settlement.
  • The entire proverbial rhyme is recited by the character Abraham Farlan in the 1946 motion picture A Matter of Life and Death, here it was used to describe the chain of circumstances which formed the life of the main character, Peter Carter.

See also

Bibliography

  • Benjamin Franklin, Poor Richards Almanack, June 1758, The Complete Poor Richard Almanacks, facsimile ed., vol. 2, pp. 375, 377
  • G. Herbert, Outlandish Proverbs, c. 1640, no. 499
  • Oxford Dictionary of Nursery Rhymes, ed. Iona and Peter Opie, Oxford 1951, pg 324

References

External links


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