Release notes: the Long Knife

By Edmund Weiner, Deputy Chief Editor of the Oxford English Dictionary

If you meet someone carrying a long knife, you take notice. Drastic and possibly unprovoked violence enters your mind. The native North Americans noticed that the white settlers of Virginia carried knives conspicuously longer than the ones they had, and bestowed on them the nickname ‘long knives’. The expression LONG KNIFE entered the OED in the first Supplement of 1933, which was noted for its coverage of American terms, especially historical ones. As a 1784 writer succinctly put it:

The savages now learned the superiority of the Long Knife, as they call the Virginians, by experience.

Subsequently the term was used specifically for a (white) soldier, or for a US citizen as opposed to a Canadian.

By the time that the second Supplement to the OED (1972–1986) was being compiled, Hitler’s  ‘Night of the Long Knives’ was a not very distant memory, and this called for an extended sense, relating to  treacherous violence. But the German debacle was not the first to which long knives was applied. Back in the fifth century, Hengist and his Saxon forces, who had invaded Britain, invited the British  King Vortigern and his entourage to a peace conference, and at a given signal the Saxons drew their swords and massacred the Britons: at least, according to Geoffrey of Monmouth’s semi-legendary History of the Britons. This slaughter became known as the treachery, plot, or treason of the long knives: first recorded in English in about 1604, but in Welsh (twyll y cyllyll hirion),  in or before 1587. The long knives referred to were probably the short swords or saxes (Old English seax) which were drawn at the command (as Geoffrey gives it) ‘Nemet oure saxas’. Although this was all a very long time ago, and may not even have happened as described, it clearly endured in memory: in Wales in 1847 a Government Report on the State of Education in Wales was referred to as the ‘treason of the Blue Books’. It is still employed as a historical term.

Given this ancient, legendary, and insular occasion of long knives it’s all the more remarkable that a similar usage arose in recent German history. The event is always known as the Night of the Long Knives, but although it started early in the morning of 30 June 1934, it continued until 2 July. A large assortment of opponents, or fancied opponents, of the Nazis, including one or two mistaken identities, perished in the bloodbath. Ernst Röhm, the leader of the Sturmabteilung or Brownshirts, who were Hitler’s especial target, was murdered on 1 July. Hitler himself used the expression Nacht der langen Messer in a speech on 13 July, referring to these events, but remarkably it had already been used in 1931 by an anti-Nazi writer, C. von Ossietzky to mean ‘a treacherous massacre’; perhaps he knew of the British legend.  The Nazis took up the expression well before the purge was planned, since the Times of 2 August 1932 stated:

Prominent Nazi leaders have played upon the imaginations of their followers..with such phrases as ‘the night of the long knives’ and ‘a vengeance for every Nazi killed’.

There was also an earlier Nazi song Wetzt die langen Messer auf dem Bürgersteig! ‘Sharpen the long knives on the pavement!’ (1928)—but with no mention of night.

As a result of this notorious event, the long knives has come to be an expression for any ruthless removal of unwanted associate or employees, for example in the magazine Money, April 1993:

This special 12-page section can help you avoid the long knives.

The outcome of all this is that the Native American nickname for a white man, with which we began, is now the second main sense of the OED entry. And there is a small twist to this story. It seems that the nickname is a translation of Mohawk a’share’koówa, lit. ‘big knife’, a name given to Francis Howard, colonial governor of Virginia (c1643–95); and it was not originally bestowed because of his long sword, but because his surname Howard was identified with the Dutch word houwer, meaning ‘cutlass’ (see the OED entry BIG KNIFE n.).