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Face the music

Q From Paula Nigro Brown in the USA: Do you know the origin of face the music?

A It was originally American.

The first known examples are all from New Hampshire, the earliest from the New-Hampshire Statesman and State Journal for 2 August 1834; “Will the editor of the Courier explain this black affair. We want no equivocation — ‘face the music’ this time.” Another early one is in the Portsmouth Journal of Literature and Politics of 23 May 1835: “As Van Buren, however, has now given ‘assurances’ that he will not be a Vetoite, we are curious to see how the tories will get over it. Come gentlemen — no dodging — face the music.” In July 1848, it appears in The National Era in Washington in an exchange with John P Hale, an abolitionist senator from the same state: “Mr. FOOTE — As the Senator from New Hampshire is an aspirant himself, what does he think a candidate ought to do? Mr. HALE — (with promptitude and humor) Why, stand up and face the music.” It seems to suddenly burst into wider popular consciousness in 1850, with many examples to be found in the years that immediately follow.

One school of thought says that it comes from musical theatre. A nervous or inexperienced performer would have to summon up all his courage to face the audience, which would require him also to face the musicians in the orchestra pit, a cynical and world-weary group who had seen everything. A second theory is that it is of military origin, though no two writers agree on what that might be. Explanations include a soldier taking his place in the ranks during an assembly, so facing the military band; a cavalry man trying to keep his restless horse quiet while the band is playing; or a soldier being drummed out of his regiment.

On the alt.usage.english newsgroup some years ago, Ben Zimmer of the US offices of the Oxford English Dictionary noted that it was perhaps relevant that it turns up frequently in abolitionist contexts. “Perhaps this became a favored turn of phrase of the abolitionists when chastising the cowardice of their opponents.” Donna Richoux speculated that the phrase might have come out of the New England tradition of contra dancing, which was apparently most popular in New Hampshire.

At the moment, we have no way of determining the true origin. But perhaps some more early examples will turn up and the matter will be decided.

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Copyright © Michael Quinion, 1996–. All rights reserved.
Page created 4 Dec. 1999
Last updated: 2 Feb. 2008

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Last modified: 2 February 2008.