Monday, 9 August 2010

Die Hard 57

This week's posts will be devoted to nineteen-eighties action movies. It is a sad fact, but true, that a small minority of people can watch Arnold Schwarzenegger (or whoever it happens to be) shooting somebody in the face with a big gun without appreciating the underlying philological complexities.

Once upon a time, in 1702, a chap called William Coward wrote a book called Second Thoughts about the nature of the soul. The point at issue was the soul in Hell. If Hell is purely physical suffering (flames, pitchforks up your bottom etc) then how does a metaphysical soul suffer? Moreover, what about people who can take physical suffering? What about people who laugh at pain? Presumably, they'll be tough enough not to mind Hell.

Thus we see by common Observation in Men condemned to die ignominiously at the Gallows, with what Impudence, and strange effrontery they bear their Sufferings; nay, even when they ought to have a check and remorse of Conscience for fear of an immediate Judgement or punishment for their Sins by God Almighty

John Broughton, chaplain to the Duke of Marlborough, read Second Thoughts and didn't like it one bit. He got so angry that he wrote a point-by-point rebuttal, which he published under the catchy title Psychologia or An Account of the Nature of the Rational Soul. Broughton mentioned that passage from Second Thoughts and summed it up thusly:

...he urges the Case of those that die hard, as they call it, at Tyburn...

And that is the first die hard ever recorded. It should be noted that hard here means tough or stubborn. The condemned man does not struggle or try to live. He is, instead, impudent and shows no fear.

The phrase would have stuck around in the obscurity of the gallows were it not for another fellow called William Inglis exactly a century later. Inglis was fighting the French at the Battle of Albuera, when he was hit by a four pound piece of grapeshot, which went through his neck and shoulder and lodged in his upper back.

Minor injuries like this, though, could not shut Inglis up, nor did the fact that the 57th Foot Regiment, which he was commanding, was being slaughtered seem to bother him. Instead he sat amongst his beleaguered men shouting again and again: "Die hard, 57th, die hard."

Astonishingly, Inglis survived and the 57th won the battle. Inglis became a hero, his exploits became famous, and the 57th Foot Regiment were nicknamed the Die-Hards.

Thus the phrase became famous and was taken up by all and sundry, especially conservative political factions who used it as an adjective. Those Tories who opposed Home Rule at the beginning of the twentieth century were die-hard conservatives. All it then required was for Alan Rickman to put on a funny accent and the rest is cinematic and linguistic history.

I don't know where Bruce Willis stands on the nature of the human soul. I should like to know what he thinks, but Mr Willis maintains a sphinx-like silence on the matter.


1 comment:

  1. I was out of town for a week and am just now catching up.

    I can't tell you how pleased this post makes me. Die Hard is my very favorite Christmas movie.