For Want of a Nail
"For Want of a Nail" is a proverb, having numerous variations over several centuries, reminding that seemingly unimportant acts or omissions can have grave and unforeseen consequences.
This proverb has come down in many variations over the centuries (see historical references below). It describes a situation in which a failure to anticipate or correct some initially small dysfunction leads by successively more critical stages to an egregious outcome. The rhyme thereby relates a conjectural example of the "butterfly effect", an effect studied in chaos theory, involving sensitive dependence on small differences in initial conditions. The rhyme's implied small difference in initial conditions is the lack of a spare horseshoe nail, relative to a condition of its availability. At a more literal level, it expresses the importance of military logistics in warfare.
Also note that the word "want" in the poem refers to a definition of "want" meaning "lacking", rather than "desiring".
The proverb is found in a number of forms, starting as early back as the 14th century:
- De. (positively formulated) "Diz ſagent uns die wîſen, ein nagel behalt ein îſen, ein îſen ein ros, ein ros ein man, ein man ein burc, der ſtrîten kan"; The wise tell us that a nail keeps a shoe, a shoe (keeps) a horse, a horse (keeps) a knight (or man), a knight, who can fight, (keeps) a castle (c. 1230 Freidank Bescheidenheit)
- "For sparinge of a litel cost, Fulofte time a man hath lost, The large cote for the hod."; For sparing a little cost often a man has lost the large coat for the hood. (c 1390 John Gower, Confessio Amantis v. 4785–4787)
- The earliest reference to the full proverb may refer to the death of Richard III of England at the Battle of Bosworth Field. This short variation of the proverb (shown to the right), was published in "Fifty Famous People" by James Baldwin. The story associated with the proverb, describing the unhorsing of King Richard during battle, would place the proverb's origin after the Battle of Bosworth on 22 August 1485. It should be noted that historically Richard's horse was merely mired in the mud. In the story, the proverb and its reference to losing a horse is directly linked to King Richard famously shouting "A Horse! A Horse! My Kingdom for a Horse!", as depicted in Act V, Scene 4 from the Shakespeare play Richard III, which was written circa 1591. It's interesting to note that Kings are often considered Knights as well, which links the "Knight" variation to this story, and it also explains the "kingdom" reference prevalent in many of the variations. Note the similarities of the French quotation below by Jean Molinet, which is contemporary with this event. Even the later Franklin variations (shown at right) – printed during conflict between England and America, when American culture and politics were shedding any reference to Kings and England – would have the references to a King stripped out of a popular proverb, further circumstantially enforcing the argument that this story is the source of the original proverb. Either year – 1485 for King Richard's death or 1591 for the Shakespeare play – the combined events in the story from "Fifty Famous People" plus the inclusion of the full proverb predate any other reference to a full causal chain of events; nail – shoe – horse – followed by at least one other dependent loss (i.e. rider, knight, battle, kingdom).
- Fr. "Par ung seul clou perd on ung bon cheval"; by just one nail one loses a good horse. (c 1507 Jean Molinet, Faictz Dictz D., v768).
- "The French-men haue a military prouerbe; 'The losse of a nayle, the losse of an army'. The want of a nayle looseth the shooe, the losse of shooe troubles the horse, the horse indangereth the rider, the rider breaking his ranke molests the company, so farre as to hazard the whole Army". (1629 Thomas Adams (clergyman), "The Works of Thomas Adams: The Sum Of His Sermons, Meditations, And Other Divine And Moral Discourses", p. 714")
- For want of a naile the shoe is lost, for want of a shoe the horse is lost, for want of a horse the rider is lost. (1640 George Herbert Outlandish Proverbs no. 499)
- In British Columbia Saw-Mill Co. v. Nettleship (1868), L.R. 3 C.P. 499 (Eng. Q.B.), a variation on the story is given a legal flavour:
- "Cases of this kind have always been found to be very difficult to deal with, beginning with a case said to have been decided about two centuries and a half ago, where a man going to be married to an heiress, his horse having cast a shoe on the journey, employed a blacksmith to replace it, who did the work so unskilfully that the horse was lamed, and, the rider not arriving in time, the lady married another; and the blacksmith was held liable for the loss of the marriage. The question is a very serious one; and we should inevitably fall into a similar absurdity unless we applied the rules of common sense to restrict the extent of liability for the breach of contract of this sort."
- ‘Don't care’ was the man who was to blame for the well-known catastrophe: ‘For want of a nail the shoe was lost, for want of a shoe the horse was lost, and for want of a horse the man was lost.’ (1880 Samuel Smiles, Duty)
- Benjamin Franklin included a version of the rhyme in his Poor Richard's Almanack. (Benjamin Franklin, Poor Richards Almanack, June 1758, The Complete Poor Richard Almanacks, facsimile ed., vol. 2, pp. 375, 377)
- Melisande, a 1901 short story by E. Nesbit, makes a passing reference: "It's a very good thing you didn't," said the King. "You've done about enough." For he had a mathematical mind, and could do the sums about the grains of wheat on the chess-board, and the nails in the horse's shoes, in his Royal head without any trouble at all.
- You bring your long-tailed shovel, an' I'll bring me navvy [labourer- in this context referring to a navvy shovel (square mouth shovel)]. We mighten' want them, an', then agen, we might: for want of a nail the shoe was lost, for want of a shoe the horse was lost, an' for want of a horse the man was lost—aw, that's a darlin' proverb, a daarlin'.(1925 S. O'casey Juno & Paycock i. 16)
- During World War II, this verse was framed and hung on the wall of the Anglo-American Supply Headquarters in London, England.
Modern day references
Along with the long history of the proverb listed above, it has continued to be referenced since the mid 20th century in modern culture. Examples include:
- In his dissent in Massachusetts v. Environmental Protection Agency (549 US 497, 2007), Chief Justice John G. Roberts of the U.S. Supreme Court cites "all for the want of a horseshoe nail" as an example of a possible chain of causation. He claimed that, by contrast, the threshold jurisdictional issue of standing requires a likely chain of causation, which was not satisfied by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's regulation of new automobile emissions to prevent the loss of Massachusetts coastal land due to climate change.
- In his dissent in CSX Transportation, Inc. v. McBride, Roberts again invokes the proverb, explaining that, in tort law, the doctrine of proximate cause is meant to "limit liability at some point before the want of a nail leads to loss of the kingdom."
- For Want of a Nail: If Burgoyne Had Won at Saratoga is an alternate history novel published in 1973 by the American business historian Robert Sobel. The novel depicts an alternative world where the American Revolution was unsuccessful.
- Cannibals And Missionaries by Mary McCarthy quotes on page 199 "No detail... was too small to be passed over....‘For want of a nail,’ as the proverb said."
- In the novel Rage, by Stephen King (using the pseudonym Richard Bachman), main character Charlie Decker references the proverb: "But you can't go back. For want of a shoe the horse was lost, and all that." Stephen King's 1987 novel, The Tommyknockers, also references the proverb in its first line: "For want of a nail the kingdom was lost – that's how the catechism goes when you boil it down."
- JLA: The Nail is a three-issue comic book limited series published by DC Comics in 1998 about a world where the baby Kal-El was never found by Ma and Pa Kent because a nail punctured their truck tire on the day when they would have found his ship; thus the child does not grow up to become Superman. This story uses the English ("Knight") variation of the rhyme as a theme.
- A Wind in the Door is a fantasy/science fiction novel by Madeleine L'Engle which was a sequel to A Wrinkle in Time. The proverb is used in the novel as an explanation of how a microscopic creature can affect the fate of the universe, and is the impetus for much of the action.
- "For Want of a Nail", a 2011 Hugo award-winning short story by Mary Robinette Kowal, explores the choices that an artificial intelligence and her wrangler must make to solve a seemingly simple technical problem.
- The poem Kiss, found in the collection Full Volume, by Robert Crawford (Scottish poet) is based on this proverb.
- The poem "Tale of a Nail" by the Polish poet Zbigniew Herbert starts with the line "For lack of a nail the kingdom fell."
- The children's poem "When there was no nail, a horseshoe was lost" by a Russian writer Samuil Marshak describes a situation where an enemy captured a city because a blacksmith shop did not have a nail in stock. The flow of the poem is very similar to that of its English equivalent.
- Todd Rundgren's song "The Want of a Nail" from his album Nearly Human uses the rhyme as a metaphor for a man who has lived his entire life without love, and how, if you "multiply it a billion times" and "spread it all over the world," things fall apart.
- A cover of Todd Rundgren's song "The Want of a Nail" is also used in the movie "Camp" as the cast is introduced at the end of the film.
- Aesop Rock's song "No City" from his album None Shall Pass samples a voice reading the proverb, setting the tone for the idiosyncratic rap.
- Tom Waits's song "Misery Is the River of the World" from his album Blood Money includes the line "for want of a nail, a shoe was lost" as well as several other variations on the theme.
- Israeli songwriter Naomi Shemer wrote a translated version of the song called HaKol Biglal Masmer (All Because of a Nail).
- Newsboys song "It's All Who You Know" from the album Take Me to Your Leader is based on variations of the theme
Cinema and television
- The title of the season two episode of M*A*S*H, "For Want of a Boot", is adapted from the proverb. The episode's concept itself is also based on the proverb, with the character of Hawkeye going through a convoluted process involving several camp personnel, in order to get a new boot.
- In the movie The Fast and the Furious: Tokyo Drift, the proverb was used by Kamata (Sonny Chiba) to explain to his nephew the result of a small detail being overlooked.
- In the movie Father Goose, Frank Houghton (Trevor Howard) in his first scene of the movie, while talking to an Admiral on the telephone, uses part of the proverb by saying "For want of a nail, the war was..." in reference to finding an additional coastal plane spotter.
- In the episode of USA's Monk, "Mr. Monk at Your Service", Monk quotes the proverb after being challenged by an employee that suggest a fork being a centimeter off center wasn't a problem. Monk: "For the want of a nail, the kingdom was lost."
- In the 1982 movie The Verdict, Ed Concannon (James Mason) uses the proverb, "for want of a shoe the horse was lost" to his disciples to describe what the case has become after Frank Galvin turned down the settlement.
- The entire proverbial rhyme is recited by the character Abraham Farlan in the 1946 motion picture A Matter of Life and Death. Here it was used to describe the chain of circumstances which formed the life of the main character, Peter Carter.
- In the 1996 computer game Star Trek: Borg "Q" quips the line "For want of a horseshoe nail" to the player during a dialog sequence.
- In season two, episode three of the television show Sliders, while trying to repair the timer device in a world crippled by 'anti-technology' Professor Arturo exclaims, "For want of a shoe the war was lost."
- In the 50th episode of Dead or Alive, Man On Horseback, Josh Randall, Steve McQueen's character, uses the proverb "For the want of a nail, they lost the shoe. For the want of a shoe, they lost the horse. For the want of a horse, they lost the rider" to justify the reason why he is taking with him four extra horseshoes.
- Butterfly effect
- Broken windows theory
- Camel's nose
- Cascading failure
- Chaos theory
- Domino effect
- Remoteness in English law
- Benjamin Franklin, Poor Richards Almanack, June 1758, The Complete Poor Richard Almanacks, facsimile ed., vol. 2, pp. 375, 377
- G. Herbert, Outlandish Proverbs, c. 1640, no. 499
- Oxford Dictionary of Nursery Rhymes, ed. Iona and Peter Opie, Oxford 1951, pg 324
- For want of a nail @ Everything2.com
- "Fifty Famous People" by James Baldwin (Retrieved 20110719)
- The way to wealth By Benjamin Franklin (Retrieved 20100420)
- Freydank; Grimm, Wilhelm (1834). Vridankes Bescheidenheit. Dieterich. Retrieved 1 September 2009.
- Definition of Hood, etimology from the New Century Dictionary, with milddle english etimology including cote and hod (retrieved 20100402)
- Proverbs: For want of a nail the shoe was lost; for want of a shoe the horse was lost; and for want of a horse the man was lost at answers.com
- "Confessio Amantis" or "Tales of the Seven Deadly Sins" Incipit Liber Quintus: Part 3 from the Online Medieval and Classical Library (retrieved 20100402)
- Gravett, Christopher (1999). Bosworth 1485: Last Charge of the Plantagenets. Campaign 66. Oxford: Osprey Publishing. p. 73. ISBN 1-85532-863-1. Retrieved 16 March 2009.
- Richard III, Act V, Scene 4, from the Richard III society (Retrieved 20100319)
- Mother goose Migrates to America, by Kerri McIntire on inheritage.org (Retrieved 20100402)
- Dictionnaire du Moyen Français (retrieved 20100402)
- Adamn, Thomas (1629). The Works of Thomas Adams: The Sum Of His Sermons, Meditations, And Other Divine And Moral Discourses. London: Thomas Harper and Augustine Matthews for John Grismand. p. 714. Retrieved 2 April 2010.
- Smiles, Samuel (1880). Duty : with illustrations of courage, patience, & endurance. London: John Murray (publisher). Retrieved 2 April 2010.
- Massachusetts v. E.P.A., 549 U.S. 497, 546 (2007).
- CSX Transportation, Inc. v. McBride, No. 10-235 (U.S. 17 June 2011) (slip op., at 3) (Roberts, C.J., dissenting).
- Amazon.com: Cannibals And Missionaries: Mary McCarthy: Books (Retrieved on 2008-10-01)
- Mr. Monk at Your Service (Retrieved 20090401)
- Famous Quotes UK (Retrieved 14-Feb-2008)
- "For want of a nail" at Everything2.com (Retrieved 14-Feb-2008)
- The Lorenz Butterfly (Retrieved 14-Feb-2008)
- JSTOR:For Want of a Nail, E. J. Lowe, Analysis, Vol. 40, No. 1 (Jan., 1980), pp. 50–52 (Retrieved 14-Feb-2008)
- James S. Robbins on 9/11 Commission published 9 April 2004 by National Review Online "For want of a nail:Lady Condoleezza on the battle of the Saracens." (Retrieved 14-Feb-2008)
- Benjamin Franklin (1706–1790), U.S. statesman, writer. Poor Richard’s Almanac, preface (1758). (Retrieved 14-Feb-2008)