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Possible 18th-century origin

Posted by R. Berg on June 28, 2001

In Reply to: Volunteer posted by R. Berg on June 28, 2001

: : : : Can anyone tell me about the origins of this saying?

: : : The word "press" has about at least a half dozen meanings one of which is a verb meaning "to take by authority especially for public use".

: : : Various militaries would "press" a person into serving in the army by physically grabbing him in the middle of the night or by serving him with a notice that he was to report for duty under threat of imprisonment.

: : : So your phrase is an opinion stating that someone who volunteers for military duty would perform twenty times better than someone who was drafted or "pressed" into service.

: : 'Press gangs' regularly gained 'recruits' into the Royal Navy in the 1800s. They wandered the docks and harboursides and literally stole people from the streets, including children, who were then used to fetch the gunpowder from below decks, through narrow passage ways - hence their name 'powder monkeys'. Only children (or very small adults) could do this at speed.

: If you're asking who originated the saying and when, I couldn't find it in the Oxford English Dictionary, which is the chief source of such things for current phrase-book writers, or in books of quotations.

A little time on Google showed that the saying is often treated as an anonymous proverb. The number of pressed men varies: 2, 3, 10, 20. A writer at one site (link below) called it an "18th-century antidraft military adage" but offered no documentation: