Waving a bloody shirt

Keep your shirt on.

Dear WD: An associate of mine (he’s a lawyer, and so am I, so that’s probably our first problem) keeps using the phrase “waving a bloody shirt” when referring to another attorney’s practice of attempting to settle a case by flaunting certain pieces of evidence. My colleague is U of C educated, and I tease him relentlessly about his mastery of the trivial, and his inability to explain the origin of this particular phrase … he usually has an answer for everything. My own meager Ivy education was unable to support our quest for this particular piece of knowledge, and a search of other resources has so for proved fruitless. Can you help? — John F. Thomas.

I remember reading a news story a few years back that said that the occupation with the lowest self-esteem was dentistry. Dentists, the article declared, may seem supremely confident while they peer and poke in our reluctant mouths, but that alabaster tunic actually conceals a soul wracked by self-doubt and inner turmoil, a fragile spirit in search of human warmth and love. Now comes the first line of your letter, and I am wondering whether the article might not have had it wrong — perhaps lawyers are the premier lost souls in need of our approval. It makes me a little (not much, but a little) ashamed of my vast (and excellent) collection of lawyer jokes.

Perhaps it will help to tell you that the use of “bloody shirt” as a metaphor for dramatic overkill has quite a long history. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, “bloody shirt” meaning specifically “a blood-stained shirt exhibited as a symbol of murder or outrage” dates back to 1586, and the use of the term metaphorically to mean a highly emotional argument or flagrant evidence of guilt is first cited in 1886 in The New York Weekly Times (“It is reprehensible .. for the Bourbons of the South to continue to play on the colour line … the Southern bloody shirt.”). There is no citation specifically for “waving a bloody shirt,” but your interpretation of the phrase as meaning “attempting to settle a case by flaunting certain pieces of evidence” seems a logical outgrowth of the original sense. Incidentally, one wonders, does one not, whether in the near future this phrase might be modified from “shirt” to “glove.”

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