What Is a Benedict Arnold? – Idiom, Origin & Meaning

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Danielle McLeod

Danielle McLeod is a highly qualified secondary English Language Arts Instructor who brings a diverse educational background to her classroom. With degrees in science, English, and literacy, she has worked to create cross-curricular materials to bridge learning gaps and help students focus on effective writing and speech techniques. Currently working as a dual credit technical writing instructor at a Career and Technical Education Center, her curriculum development surrounds student focus on effective communication for future career choices.

When can a name be used as a noun or idiom? It’s when the name has become synonymous with the owner’s action in such a manner that it has a historical significance.

Benedict Arnold is called such because the person on the receiving end of the label has betrayed something. An idiom is a word or phrase that has taken on a figurative use. And in this case, the historical significance of one man’s actions was so unpleasant that his name would forever be remembered in history as an idiomatic phrase to indicate a person you should never trust.

Let’s learn what it means to be a Benedict Arnold, the history behind the name, and how to correctly use it in a sentence.

What Is the Meaning of Benedict Arnold?

What Is a Benedict Arnold Idiom Origin Meaning

A Benedict Arnold is the name given to a traitor. A traitor is loosely defined as someone who has been revered and elevated to a place of trust and has betrayed that trust.

The idiom Benedict Arnold is an American term derived from a person who was a general for the Americans during the Revolutionary War. Unfortunately, he sold out his country to the British for selfish reasons.

Technically, Benedict Arnold is used as an allusion to tie a past event to a current situation. And it is still a stinging accusation in American English. Note that both words are capitalized, as it is a proper name.

For example:

  • The politician’s abrupt shift in allegiance raised suspicions that he might be a Benedict Arnold, willing to sacrifice principles for personal gain.
  • Due to past voting histories, the political rivals each claimed the other a Benedict Arnold to their country.
  • Despite being part of the team, Jennifer’s sudden betrayal during the crucial project earned her the reputation of a Benedict Arnold.

History and Origins of Benedict Arnold

Benedict Arnold was born in the Connecticut Colony in 1741. He first fought in the French and Indian War briefly when still in his teens.

He became a successful apothecary and businessman and protested against the Sugar and Stamp Acts. These two British taxation attempts placed undue financial burdens on the colonies and served as a catalyst for the Boston Tea Party.

Very much a patriot, he joined the fight for independence against Britain and King George III as a captain in the militia. He played a critical part in the siege of Boston that occurred after the Battles of Lexington and Concord. He also helped Ethan Allen and the Green Mountain Boys to capture Fort Ticonderoga and Fort Saint-Jean.

He had a relatively illustrious military career. And despite being promoted to major general, he began to chaff against the lack of recognition for his actions during various campaigns. He was disappointed when others received credit while he did not.

He eventually was appointed military governor of Philadelphia while recovering from wounds received in battle, where he was less than popular and ultimately accused of misusing his office. He also was amassing vast debts due to his wife’s overspending. He was insulted by his lack of recognition in service to the Continental Army and felt the Revolution was a lost cause.

At this time, George Washington recalled him as a top commander. However, Arnold requested a position in command of the defenses at West Point, which he planned to turn over to the British. He contacted the British Army to broker a deal and included the capture of George Washington in exchange for a large payment.

What Is a Benedict Arnold Idiom Origin Meaning 1

The British agreed, and plans were set in place. Fortunately for the Continental Army, the British go-between was captured. And the documents he had on his person were enough to condemn Arnold as a traitor to the Revolution.

He fled to the British, served as an officer against his former comrades, and later settled in England. Since nobody likes a traitor, he was scorned in England and exiled from the colonies lest he faced a firing squad.

His name quickly became synonymous with the worst kind of traitor. The regular use of the idiom has been around since at least the early 19th century.

Let’s Review

Although a prestigious and important member of the Continental Army during the first half of the Revolutionary War, American-born Benedict Arnold became a turncoat for various selfish reasons.

After his failed attempt to hand over a strategic military defensive outpost, he fled to the British to avoid being hung, fought against his former comrades, and eventually retired to England.

He was never brought to justice. And it is said on his deathbed that he recanted his past actions against the Americans.

The allusion “to be a Benedict Arnold” is an idiom applied to a person or a person’s actions that labels them as a traitor or having committed a betrayal of the worst kind.

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