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Who falls on a sword today?
Nov 22, 2012

 

Both print and electronic media have devoted time and space to the recent turmoil within the BBC.
London correspondent, Eric Reguly, writing on November 12, told Globe and Mail readers, “Mr. Entwistle, who said the Newsnight program reflected unacceptable journalistic standards, fell on his sword.”
Reguly was referring to George Entwistle’s resignation from his position as director-general of the BBC after a mere 54 days in the job. The scandal, while not in any way directed at Entwistle, involves alleged child abuse. An enquiry is underway.
Meanwhile, the Sun’s Peter Worthington asked, in reference to the U.S. scandal re CIA director, David Petraeus, “Can it be good-soldier Petraeus is falling on his sword or being thrown under the bus?”
The metaphor, to fall on one’s sword, has been in English for a long time, the earliest print reference being in the first English translation of the Bible — The Miles Coverdale Version of 1534. We find the term in the biblical account of the death of Saul, first king of Israel, who lived during the 11th century BC.  Saul asked his armour-bearer to kill him. When the man refused, “Saul took a sword and fell upon it” (1 Samuel 31:4; King James Version).
To commit suicide this way is mentioned in Parallel Lives by the Greek philosopher, Plutarch (c.46 AD -c.120 AD). Plutarch wrote that Marcus Brutus, one of Julius Caesar’s assassins, died by falling on his sword.
Unsurprisingly, Shakespeare used that information, although he altered it slightly. In the play, Julius Caesar (1599), Brutus doesn’t fall on his sword, he charges into it.
Brutus says, “Farewell good Strato/ (Runs on his sword.) / Caesar now be still:/ I killed not thee with half so good a will. (Dies.)”
To fall on one’s sword’s literal meaning is to commit suicide for the sake of the general cause, especially following some defeat. But for centuries, falling on one’s sword has referred not to physical death but to the death of a career or reputation. In recent times, falling on one’s sword has been watered down still more. It has come simply to mean, “taking responsibility.”  Seldom is any meaningful sacrifice involved.
That’s why the BBC’s Entwistle has attracted so much press coverage. He has sacrificed his career by his own decision, even though he isn’t personally accused of wrongdoing. 
As for Petraeus, indications are that he truly was pushed under the bus — that he was forced by others into the role of scapegoat.
Entwistle demonstrated the kind of honourable behaviour once regularly seen in cabinet ministers and other leaders — behaviour never seen today. At least not in Canada.
Entwistle stated that as director of the BBC, he is “ultimately responsible” for all aired content and contact and, therefore, believes that stepping down is, “the honourable thing to do.”
He is saying in other words that, “The buck stops here.”
The name “Entwistle” is Anglo-Saxon. It means, “The forks of the river where waterhens and ducks gather.” A local name, it is most usual in Lancashire, although it’s also found in Ireland as “Entissle.”