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Where did that phrase come from - Stay the course
Stan St. Clair

Memorial Day is a uniquely American holiday when we honor those brave soldiers who made the supreme sacrifice for our country while serving in the military.

In my 10-plus years researching common English phrases, it was amazing to discover how many of them were either coined or made popular in the military. Today we are fighting an entirely different kind of conflict, not just in America, but globally. And there are so many heroes on the front lines, some of whom are losing their lives to this surreal war. “Stay the course” is an expression popularized in the military which seems apropos now, possibly more than ever in our lifetimes.

This familiar term refers to persisting at one’s goal until desired results are realized. The initial citation, however, had a somewhat different application. The earliest known reference in print is from 1588 when British playwright Christopher Marlowe used it in “The Tragical History of Dr. Faustus” in a countervailing sense as stopping the course of something, as an execution may be “stayed.”

By the late 19th century it was adapted to describe the stamina of horses being able to remain in a race. One such citation is from The Saturday Review, London, Oct. 14, 1871:

“There was nothing in his breeding, and, of course, nothing in his performances, to justify the belief that he could stay the course, even supposing that he was able to gallop at all in good company …”

By World War I, it was being used in a sense of military ability. This example is from "The Parliamentary History of Conscription in Great Britain," 1917:

“We will not likely stay the course until 1918 at our current rate of expenditure.”

At the time the above quote was penned, no one suspected that the Spanish flu pandemic was about to hit, taking more lives than the Great War itself.

Things are beginning to open up again in Tennessee, and basically, all over America. But that doesn’t mean this enigmatic enemy is vanquished, or that we should “throw all caution to the wind.” We must stay the course. It won’t last forever.


If you would like to know the origin of a favorite expression, text the author at 931-212-3303 or email him at stan@stclair.net.