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Burn one’s bridges and burn one’s boats

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  • The idioms burn one’s bridges andburn one’s boats are reputed to have their origins in ancient Rome, though these phrases did not come into common use until the 1800s. An idiom is a word, group of words or phrase that has a figurative meaning that is not easily deduced from its literal definition. Common idioms are used in the English language in order to convey a concise idea, and are often spoken or are considered informal or conversational. We will examine the meaning of the expressions burn one’s bridges andburn one’s boats, the origin of these phrases and some examples of their use in sentences.


     

    To burn one’s bridges or to burn one’s boats means to do something that is not easily undone, to do something that makes returning to one’s original state an impossible task. Most often, the idioms to burn one’s bridges and to burn one’s boats are used in the negative sense, as in don’t burn your bridges or don’t burn your boats. These are admonitions that are meant to discourage someone from leaving a situation in an irredeemable manner. For instance, if someone quits a job by hurling an insulting tirade at his boss, not only will he not be rehired, he will not receive a favorable reference from that person. That person is said to have burned his bridges with his last employer. The terms burn one’s bridges andburn one’s boats have their origins in ancient Rome. Like many idioms, these phrases have a literal origin. It was a practice in Roman warfare to destroy bridges. Sometimes, these bridges were destroyed in order to stop the enemy from fleeing. Other times, the bridges were destroyed behind the Roman armies in order to leave no way to retreat. This meant that the armies had to fight to the death, or to victory. Destroying bridges is still a tactic used in warfare, primarily to stop the escape of the enemy, as well as to cut the enemy’s supply lines. In the same manner, ancient navies might destroy their boats upon landing on the enemies’ shore. By burning or otherwise sinking their fleet, ancient soldiers and sailors could not retreat. They had no choice but victory. Ancient vessels were primarily constructed of wood. Navigation was by sail over long distances, though each vessel was powered by oar during battle, in close quarters or when the lack of wind made sailing impossible. Long seats were situated inside the boat to accommodate rowers. Of course, the vessels were only destroyed after everyone on board had debarked. While referencing ancient military tactics, the idioms burn one’s bridges andburn one’s boats came into general usage in the 1800s. The primarily British term burn one’s boats is about twenty-five years older than the phrase  burn one’s bridges. Related terms are burns one’s bridges, burned one’s bridges, burning one’s bridges, burns one’s boats, burned one’s boats, burning one’s boats. Note that the word one’s is spelled with an apostrophe, as it is possessive.

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    Examples

    While the adage “don’t burn your bridges” is most often applied to departing employees, the same holds true for the employers seeing them go. (The Globe and Mail)

    You burn a bridge when you break up with your sweetheart via text message, tell him or her never to contact you again and then change your phone number. (Forbes Magazine)

    It was Sun Tzu who said in the Art of War, “When your army has crossed the border, you should burn your boats and bridges, in order to make it clear to everybody that you have no hankering after home.” (The Economic Times)

    How many of you have committed to burn your boats with no plan B? (Time Magazine)

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