Take no prisoners

Take no prisoners is a phrase that has been in use for hundreds of years, but only fairly recently become an idiom. An idiom is a commonly used word, group of words, or phrase that has a figurative meaning that is not easily deduced from its literal definition. Often using descriptive imagery or metaphors, common idioms are words and phrases used in the English language in order to convey a concise idea, and are often spoken or are considered informal or conversational. English idioms can illustrate emotion more quickly than a phrase that has a literal meaning, even when the etymology or origin of the idiomatic expression is lost. An idiom is a metaphorical figure of speech, and it is understood that it is not a use of literal language. Figures of speech like an often-used metaphor have definitions and connotations that go beyond the literal meaning of the words. Mastery of the turn of phrase of an idiom, which may use slang words or other parts of speech common in American slang or British slang, is essential for the English learner. Many English as a Second Language students do not understand idiomatic expressions and idiomatic language such as hit the sack, spill the beans, let the cat out of the bag, silver lining, back to the drawing board, barking up the wrong tree, kick the bucket, hit the nail on the head, face the music, under the weather, piece of cake, when pigs fly, and raining cats and dogs, because they attempt to translate them word for word, which yields only the literal meaning. English phrases that are idioms should not be taken literally. In addition to learning vocabulary and grammar, one must understand the phrasing of the figurative language of idiomatic phrases in order to know English like a native speaker; it is helpful to maintain a list of phrases, common expressions, colloquial terms, and popular expressions to memorize that are used figuratively or idiomatically. We will examine the meaning of the common saying take no prisoners, where it came from, and some examples of its idiomatic usage in sentences.

Take no prisoners is an idiom that means to show no mercy, to be uncompromising, to be relentless, to have a firm resolve to conquer something. The expression take no prisoners was long a decision made by commanders before a battle to indicate how hard the troops should fight. To take no prisoners meant to show no mercy to the enemy, to vanquish the enemy entirely. The expression take no prisoners came into use in the mid-twentieth century as a figurative expression to mean to be ruthless, especially in business or when playing in sporting events. The term take no prisoners may be used as an adjective before a noun; in this case it is hyphenated, as in take-no-prisoners.


Citing COVID-19 cases rising “at a rapid rate,” a new, take-no-prisoners Medical Officer of Health Dr. Wajid Ahmed brought down the hammer Friday. (The Windsor Star)

Most “transportation advocates” are take-no-prisoners cycling zealots or elitist wonks who come and go by limousine (to say nothing of former Mayor Michael Bloomberg, who had the means to fly above it all in helicopters). (The New York Post)

But senior politicians don’t like taking unnecessary chances, and they take no prisoners. (Haaretz)

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