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The term comes from the Dutch verloren hoop, literally "lost troop". The Dutch word "hoop" can mean "hope" but is in this context etymologically equivalent to the English word "heap". The term was used in military contexts to denote a troop formation. The Dutch word hoop (in its sense of heap in English) is not cognate with English hope: this is an example of false folk etymology. The mistranslation of "verloren hoop" as "forlorn hope" is "a quaint misunderstanding" using the nearest-sounding English words. This false etymology is further entrenched by the fact that in Dutch the word hoop is a homograph meaning "hope" as well as "heap", though the two senses have different etymologies.
In the days of muzzle-loading muskets, the term was most frequently used to refer to the first wave of soldiers attacking a breach in defences during a siege. It was likely that most members of the forlorn hope would be killed or wounded. The intention was that some would survive long enough to seize a foothold that could be reinforced, or at least that a second wave with better prospects could be sent in while the defenders were reloading or engaged in mopping up the remnants of the first wave.
A forlorn hope may be composed of volunteers and led by a junior officer with hopes of personal advancement. If the volunteers survived, and performed courageously, they would be expected to benefit in the form of promotions, cash gifts and adding glory to their name. The commanding officer himself was almost guaranteed both a promotion and a long-term boost to his career prospects. As a result, despite the risks, there was often competition for the opportunity to lead the assault. The French equivalent of the forlorn hope, called Les Enfants Perdus or The Lost Children, were all guaranteed promotion to officer rank should they survive, with the effect that both enlisted men and officers joined the dangerous mission as an opportunity to raise themselves in the army.
By extension, the term forlorn hope became used for any body of troops placed in a hazardous position, e.g., an exposed outpost, or the defenders of an outwork in advance of the main defensive position. This usage was especially common in accounts of the English Civil War, as well as in the British Army in the Peninsular War of 1808–1814.
- Banzai charge
- Battle of Sari Bair
- Cannon fodder
- Frontal assault
- Penal military unit
- Shock troops
- Suicide attack
- Suicide mission
- Siege of Badajoz
- Chisholm, Hugh, ed. (1911). "Forlorn Hope". Encyclopædia Britannica (11th ed.). Cambridge University Press.
- Oxford English Dictionary: "forlorn hope"
- Kilian, Cornelius (1593). Etymologicum Teutonicæ Linguæ. Antwerp: Jan Moretus (cited in Oxford English Dictionary).
- Merriam Webster: forlorn hope
- Newman, John B; Lawrence J Raphael; Carolyn B Raphael; Miriam R Valdodinos (Eds.) (1984). Language and Cognition: Essays in Honor of Arthur J. Bronstein. New York: Plenum Press. pp. 203–4. ISBN 0-306-41433-3.
- Todd, Loreto; Ian Hancock (1990). International English Usage. London: Routledge. p. 233. ISBN 0-415-05102-9.
- Attridge, Derek (1988). Peculiar Language: Literature as Difference from the Renaissance to James Joyce. Ithaca, New York: Cornell University Press. p. 112. ISBN 0-415-34057-8. "the Dutch phrase verloren hoop, the “lost heap”…became naturalized—and generalized—as forlorn hope…a quaint misunderstanding [from] folk etymology."
- "The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language". Bartleby. 2000. Retrieved 18 July 2011.