EP 021: Burn Your Boats

EP 026: JIBES, JEERS AND OTHER SICK BURNS Historycal: Words that Shaped the World

What do Winston Churchill, William Shakespeare and Pope John XXIII have in common? The answer: they all know how to deliver a sick burn. And now you do too. In this episode we have the history of all sorts of things our mothers told us not to say – said in style.

Today we’ve got famous phrases for anyone who likes aggressive motivational speeches, show tunes, or not dying in aeroplanes. If any of those categories apply to you, please leave us a rating and review, subscribe, tell a friend, and join us on social media. If you don’t fall into any of those categories, please join us anyway, but maybe avoid air travel for a while.

If you’ve ever had the kind of day at work that led you straight into the arms of your local watering hole for a stiff one, chances are you’ve had the kind of conference with friends that starts with a round of gin martinis, lingers over the size of your boss’s ego (how does he fit it indoors?) and ends with someone called Larry telling you not to burn your bridges.

And then you stagger home for a little cry, and whilst eating leftover pizza from a soggy box and scrolling through YouTube shorts, Tony Robbins tells you to burn your boats.

Now you’re a little bit sad, a little bit squiffy, and very confused about what you are and aren’t meant to be setting on fire. Burning your boats is, supposedly, a good idea, meaning you’ve made the stakes so high that you have no other choice but to succeed. Burning your bridges, on the other hand, refers to making choices that can’t be undone, and is usually bad.

The short answer is, burn nothing. Its not safe, it makes a lot of mess, and you whilst you will solve your immediate frustrations, it will only be because you’ve replaced them with the far more pressing issue of being in jail. And even though they might seem to be contradictory pieces of advice now, ‘burning your bridges’ and ‘burning your boats’ are actually expressions that used to mean something very similar.

One of the early contenders for an origins story comes from about 711CE, when Tariq bin Ziyad led a troop of Muslim forces in an invasion of Visigoth Hispania – the area that is today Spain and Portugal. Tariq had what we might mildly call an ‘autocratic management style’. He didn’t go in for team building arts and crafts, yoga in the mornings, and talking sticks.

When his troops crossed the Strait of Gibraltar, he ordered them to burn their boats, so that the only options were victory or death. (This, I should add, was supposed to be very motivational. Pinterest had not yet been invented). He nailed his point home with, according to some sources, a very pretty speech, explaining why setting the fleet on fire was not, in fact, a completely ludicrous decision:

“Oh my warriors, whither would you flee? Behind you is the sea, before you, the enemy. You have left now only the hope of your courage and your constancy. Remember that in this country you are more unfortunate than the orphan seated at the table of the avaricious master. Your enemy is before you, protected by an innumerable army; he has men in abundance, but you, as your only aid, have your own swords, and, as your only chance for life, such chance as you can snatch from the hands of your enemy. If the absolute want to which you are reduced is prolonged ever so little, if you delay to seize immediate success, your good fortune will vanish, and your enemies, whom your very presence has filled with fear, will take courage. Put far from you the disgrace from which you flee in dreams, and attack this monarch who has left his strongly fortified city to meet you. Here is a splendid opportunity to defeat him, if you will consent to expose yourselves freely to death. Do not believe that I desire to incite you to face dangers which I shall refuse to share with you. In the attack I myself will be in the fore, where the chance of life is always least.”  

This isn’t the only example of this, which just goes to show that humans have been weird for most of history. Cortes famously scuttled his ships when he invaded Mexico, claiming that his men would be far more motivated to ruthlessly conquer the interior if the only other choice was dying. On the other hand, there’s some evidence to suggest that he actually did this to stop a mutiny, so it may be less motivational speaking and more self-perseveration. Which, given some of the other things we know about Cortes, checks out.  

Speaking of mutinies, the Mutiny on the Bounty is another pretty famous example of burning one’s boats, although they also had slightly less than admirable reasons. In 1789, after a miserable few weeks at sea, and possibly some unverified bullying and mild starvation enforced by the Captain, the masters’ mate and most of the crew rebelled, chucked the Captain and his friends into a little boat, and set them adrift at sea. Eventually the mutineers split into two groups, one of which set up camp on Pitcairn Island. They set the Bounty alight, although its murky territory as to whether this was a collective act to avoid being found, or a single man’s act of arson. Either way, I suppose, it demonstrates a kind of commitment to a cause. No one ever said it had to be a good cause.

As a sidebar, they didn’t actually have a great time on the Island, and most of them died anyway. So they maybe weren’t making the point they thought they were.

Julius Caesar also gets an honourable mention here, although this one might be more legend than fact. According to some stories, during Caesar’s campaign into Briton, he noticed that his men were looking all nervy and queasy, and ordered them to burn the ships they had arrived on. This is where we get the famous full version of the phrase – the one motivational speakers are so partial to – because he supposedly said to his men “if you want to take the island, burn the boats.” Except, obviously, in Latin. He doesn’t actually tell this story himself in any of the personal histories he wrote, but it was a very popular legend. If you’re looking for a reason for this that’s a little more robust than “it’s a catchy line” – which it is – you’ll be pleased to know that burning boats pop up (or down) all over Greek and Roman mythology.

What the Romans are almost definitely responsible for is the motivational-adjacent line: burning your bridges. Except of course, they said do. We say don’t. It was a very popular military strategy with the Romans to burn the bridges they’d arrived over, leaving them with no option but to carry on. It also left the enemy with no chance of sneaking up behind them. This was quite effective, to a degree, but then the Romans also used to watch gladiators hack each other to death for fun, so its all relative.

Because humans really like to have the option to say the same thing in increasingly convoluted and differently interpreted ways, you don’t have to stick to burning methods of transport. You can also cross the Rubicon, which is a bold action that can’t be undone, and is another one courtesy of Julius Caesar, who had a very colourful life until he was brutally murdered by his closest friends.  At this point, he quite literally crossed the Rubicon River with his army, which was forbidden at that time. Never one to do things in half measures, he reportedly coined another phrase as he crossed: ‘the die is cast.’ Or in Latin: Alea iacta est.  This basically means that once you’ve thrown the dice, there’s no going back. It’s very similar to burn the boats, except he was saving that. And he probably didn’t have boats at the Rubicon.

The die is cast is catchy, but it does have all the potential to make you sound like a pretentious chop in casual conversation. In that case, you can say you’ve passed the point of no return, which has its roots in air navigation. It usually refers to the point at which an aeroplane no longer has enough fuel to return to wherever it took off from, and has to carry on to the next landing site. It can also mean the point at which the pilot of an aircraft in distress has to make a decision that can’t be reversed, or the point on a runway at which the plane has to become airborne, or crash. For example, in 1927, when Charles Lindbergh flew the Spirit of St Louis on the first solo nonstop transatlantic flight from Long Island to Paris, there was more uncertainty than you’d really like as to whether the plane would actually be able to take off once it was fully loaded. At a certain point on the runway, if it hadn’t taken off, it wouldn’t have had enough distance left to actually slow down and come to a safe stop without crashing and/or exploding.

In show business, of course, the point of no return is Act 2 of The Phantom of the Opera, when the creepy, but still dishy, musical serial killer in the basement has murdered too many people, and sung too many duets, to resist kidnapping the ingenue and forcing her into marriage slash slavery underneath the stage of the Paris Opera House.

All of which just confirms that neither aviation nor acting are the careers for me.

So now you know: you don’t want to burn your bridges, you do want to burn your boats, you have no control of the dice, and aviation in the 20’s was not for the fainthearted.

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