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In 2005 Britain will undoubtedly make a vast splash about the two-hundredth anniversary of the Battle of Trafalgar, at which Admiral Horatio Nelson beat the French but lost his own life. A preliminary skirmish took place in London last week when a mass of Nelsoniana was auctioned. The catalogue contained a quiz in which the story of Nelson’s famous signal before the battle, “England expects that every man will do his duty”, was revisited.

Nelson originally wanted his signal to read “England confides that every man will do his duty”. His signal officer, Lieutenant John Pascoe, persuaded him to replace confides by expects because it would need fewer flags at a time of great haste. As an unintended result, the signal makes as much sense now as it did at the time, whereas the original version would have needed explaining anew to each generation that encounters it.

It’s another example of the way language changes. When we confide in somebody today we mean we entrust a secret on the understanding that it won’t be passed on. That sense actually dates only from the middle of the eighteenth century and overlaps with the one that Lord Nelson was using.

Confide comes from Latin confidere, to trust or rely on. We get confident and confidence from the same source. The original sense of the verb to confide was to be confident about something. Another great sailor, Sir George Anson, wrote in his Voyage round the World of 1748, “The stoutest cables are not to be confided in”, an extraordinary sentiment to us today. Some people talk to the trees, our heir to the throne is reported to chat to plants, but nobody that we know of tells their secrets to ropes.

Nelson was saying — in the standard English of his time — that his country was confident that every man would do his duty. They did. In 2005 we shall hear all about it in immense detail — of that we can be confident.

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Copyright © Michael Quinion, 1996–. All rights reserved.

Page created 16 Nov 2002