Dr. Goodword’s Language Blog

Last Ditch Effort to Save ‘Last Ditch’

Another confusion that has been brought to my attention recently is the phrase “last-ditch effort”. Some speakers are now bringing it out of the dirt, cleaning it up, and taking it for “last-stitch effort”.

The metaphor here comes from the military and refers to a stand in the last trench. Thomas Jefferson wrote of “a government . . . driven to the last ditch by the universal call for liberty.”  It is interesting to note that the phrase seems to be dying out but the adjective, last-ditch, clings on to life. Well, we need to cling on to both of them.

2 Responses to “Last Ditch Effort to Save ‘Last Ditch’”

  1. Larry Brady Says:

    That 1892 date seemed odd to me, so I did it bit of research on Jefferson and the phrase “driven to the last ditch by the universal call for liberty.”

    I thought Jefferson had died long before 1892. In fact, according to Wikipedia, he died July 4th, 1826, the 50th anniversary of the adoption of the Declaration of Independence, the same day as John Adams, so it would have been a bit difficult for even a man such as Jefferson to rise from the grave to take pen in hand. 🙂

    I finally found a link at Yale (among other places) to Jefferson’s Autobiography in which he uses that phrase. It is dated January 6, 1821.

    [ ]

    I do note that the first link returned on a search for the phrase has this reference:

    “1821 T. JEFFERSON Writ. (1892) I. 122 A government..driven to the last ditch by the universal call for liberty.”

    The reference is from a UK site; ’nuff said. Still, the second link has this reference from the same site, which doesn’t date the Jefferson quote:

    “last-ditch — ‘There’s one certain means by which I can be sure never to see my country’s ruin: I will die in the last ditch.” William of Orange (c. 1677).

    “Describing a desperate final measure. The last ditch was, in military terms, the last line of defense. The term had begun to be used figuratively by the eighteenth century, when Thomas Jefferson wrote, ‘A government driven to the last ditch by the universal call for liberty.’ Similarly, to ‘die in the last ditch’ means to resist to the end; it dates from the early 1700s.” From “Fighting Words: from War, Rebellion, and Other Combative Capers” by Christine Ammer (NTC Publishing Group, Chicago, 1999).”

    So, I suspect the 1821 Jefferson quote was taken from some work published in 1892.
    Still in all, the phrase has been around for over 325 years.

  2. rbeard Says:

    Date correction duly noted and instituted. Don’t know how that one slipped by me. I knew it was a much older phrase and that it came from the British Army. I just like Jefferson (except for the chapter in his book on African-Americans).

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