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Tier-Rex
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Apologies if this is elsewhere. i couldn't locate it.

I was wondering about the origins of the phrase " a loose cannon"- meaning a dangerously uncontrollable person or thing.

I had heard that it derived from Naval usage. A loose cannon was something that would roll around on the deck, getting in people's way and tripping them up. You were also never sure if it would suddenly go off.

Anyone have any insight?

Thanks [Smile]

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The Stainless-Steel Unwin
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A loose cannon is probably not a good thing under the best of circumstances, but on a listing and pitching naval vessel it would be especially hazardous, even if it wasn't primed to fire. The American Heritage dictionary corroborates the origin cited in the original post.

Paul "You know what I mean by range, don't you?" Unwin

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Tier-Rex
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quote:
Originally posted by The Stainless-Steel Unwin:
A loose cannon is probably not a good thing under the best of circumstances, but on a listing and pitching naval vessel it would be especially hazardous, even if it wasn't primed to fire. The American Heritage dictionary corroborates the origin cited in the original post.

Paul "You know what I mean by range, don't you?" Unwin

Thanks [Smile] YAY, at last a version of a phrases origin I have heard that actually may be correct. It certainly adds to it too. [Eek!]
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Death by Autopsy - Cloned Ranger
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Actually the phrase is "loose canon", and refers to a member of the medieval Roman Catholic clergy who went round fornicating with the lads and lasses of the village. Since his behaviour was "loose", he was a risk to the church's reputation. [lol]
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KeithB
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I am not a naval historian, though I have read a few Horatio Hornblower books!

Cannons used to be held in place by ropes. When they fired the recoil would push them back far enough to allow access to the barrel for swabbing and reloading. (A cannon that could throw a 24 lb ball three miles would throw a 1 ton cannon back pretty far.) Imagine what would happen if the rope broke during the recoil....

A block and tackle was used to pull it back into position.

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JubJubBird
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I may just be imagining things, but I believe William Safire discussed this phrase in one of the more recent installments of "On Words" in the New York Times Magazine.

I lament that I can neither verify nor provide a summary of what he said, but see if you can find an archive somewhere (if it's that important to you [Smile] ).

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snopes
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quote:
A loose cannon was something that would roll around on the deck, getting in people's way and tripping them up. You were also never sure if it would suddenly go off.
The danger that a loose cannon might "go off" was rather small, since cannons (on ships) were only loaded with powder cartridges and shot when the ship was in (or about to go into) action against an enemy and the cannons were being tended by gun crews. A cannon that broke loose during the recoil of firing (the most likely cause of a loose cannon) would obviously no longer be holding any charge or ammunition that might make it "go off."

The primary danger of loose cannons on shipboard was simply their weight. Cannons were extremely heavy (typically more than ton each), and a loose cannon pitching about the deck could easily crush crewmembers' limbs or crush crewmembers to death.

- snopes

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Brad from Georgia
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quote:
Originally posted by snopes:
....
The primary danger of loose cannons on shipboard was simply their weight. Cannons were extremely heavy (typically more than ton each), and a loose cannon pitching about the deck could easily crush crewmembers' limbs or crush crewmembers to death.

- snopes

Indeed, and the larger cannons went up to more than two tons in weight. A further concern was that a loose cannon would hit the coaming of a hatch, tip over, and plunge through. Its weight could carry it right through the hull.

--------------------
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Ursa Major
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quote:
Originally posted by Brad from Georgia:
quote:
Originally posted by snopes:
....
The primary danger of loose cannons on shipboard was simply their weight. Cannons were extremely heavy (typically more than ton each), and a loose cannon pitching about the deck could easily crush crewmembers' limbs or crush crewmembers to death.

- snopes

Indeed, and the larger cannons went up to more than two tons in weight. A further concern was that a loose cannon would hit the coaming of a hatch, tip over, and plunge through. Its weight could carry it right through the hull.
Do you have a cite for that? Not only have I never heard of such a thing happening but I seriously doubt even a two ton cannon could gain enough momentum to penetrate the hundreds (perhaps thousands) of tons of shingle that those ships carried for ballast.

There are, however several accounts of loose cannons crushing seamen, weakening masts and disabling other guns.

A cannon coming loose because of recoil would also be unlikely. Those ropes would have been consantly inspected by the officers and lovingly tended to by a crew of 3-10 seamen responsible for each particular gun.

The more likely scenerio is one where the gun is dislodged in battle by enemy fire or a mishap during a (rare and ill-advised) shifting of guns during rough weather.

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Brad from Georgia
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Lorna Rea, The Spanish Armada, G.P. Putnam's Sons, 1933:

quote:
At least one Spanish vessel was lost when a cannon, breaking free in the storm, fell through a hatch and so sprang the timbers that the ship rapidly filled with water and sank.
(Edited to fix my typo)

--------------------
"No hard feelin's and HOPpy New Year!"--Walt Kelly
Hear what you're missing: ARTC podcasts! http://artcpodcast.org/

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Ursa Major
The Red and the Green Stamps


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quote:
Originally posted by Brad from Georgia:
Lorna Rea, The Spanish Armada, G.P. Putnam's Sons, 1933:

quote:
At least one Spanish vessel was lost when a cannon, breaking free in the storm, fell through a hatch and so sprang the timbers that the ship rapidly filled with water and sank.
(Edited to fix my typo)
Thanks!
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