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No names, no pack drill

Q From Chris Johnston; related questions came from Mary Louise Lyman and Tony Apted: You wrote no names, no pack drill in the newsletter [of 7 January 2006]. What does this mean? I can’t find it on your Web site or in any of my dictionaries.

A That phrase bubbled up from my subconscious. I realised at once that it might not be understood, but left it in from a mischievous desire to learn whether anybody would query it. Your all having done so means that I can now explain it.

The expression no names, no pack drill comes from the army. It conveys the idea that if nobody is named as being responsible for some error or offence, then nobody can be punished. It’s a warning, or a suggestion, that it would be best to keep quiet to avoid repercussions. It has been broadened in civilian life to suggest avoiding discussion on any subject:

I suspected that she was an actress. Partly from things she said, but mostly because there were such a lot of stage and film magazines in the house. I asked her about it once, but she said: “No names, no pack drill. It’s a good motto, Robin. Don’t forget.”

A Shilling for Candles, Josephine Tey, 1936.

The immediate source of the expression for me was my father, a decorated soldier who served in northern France throughout the First World War. The basis of the expression is the one-time common military punishment of pack drill, though not one he ever suffered. It was part of army life throughout the nineteenth century. This is one explanation of it:

He [the soldier] has in addition to his normal duties, to undergo for a certain number of hours every day ... what is termed “pack drill,” viz., drill in full marching order, knapsack, greatcoat, rifle, accoutrements, and, in fact, everything appertaining to a soldier being carried on his person.

Morning Chronicle, 20 Sep. 1861.

This was exhausting, particularly as soldiers were often required to march at double pace, and hated by the soldiery. It was widely used to punish relatively minor disciplinary offences.

People often assume, as I used to, that the expression is of First World War origin; this has been supported by the earliest example in the Oxford English Dictionary being from 1923. We now know it’s older:

He saw Burke in the custody of Rolfe, and charged him with the theft of the clock. Witness asked him who the other man was, and he said “No names, no pack drill.”

Bucks Herald (Buckinghamshire), 11 Apr. 1903.

An intriguing much earlier appearance is in the heading of an article in a Canadian newspaper:

NOTES, Taken on the March to and from the North-West Angle,
At the time of the Indian Treaty of 1873.

Daily Free Press (Winnipeg), 28 July, 1874. The Northwest Angle mentioned is just over the US border in Minnesota. An old saw is a proverbial saying (a saw was once a story, saying or tale, from an Old English word connected with saga and say).

This suggests the expression is more ancient still, but so far nobody has been able to take it back any further in the written record.

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Copyright © Michael Quinion, 1996–. All rights reserved.
Page created 28 Jan. 2006
Last updated: 15 Nov. 2014

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The English language is forever changing. New words appear; old ones fall out of use or alter their meanings. World Wide Words tries to record at least a part of this shifting wordscape by featuring new words, word histories, words in the news, and the curiosities of native English speech.

World Wide Words is copyright © Michael Quinion, 1996–. All rights reserved.
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Last modified: 15 November 2014.