For Want of a Nail

Butterfly

camel nose

For Want of a Nail is a proverb, having numerous variations over several centuries, reminding that seemingly unimportant acts or omissions can have grave and unforeseen consequences: ‘For want of a nail the shoe was lost. For want of a shoe the horse was lost. For want of a horse the rider was lost. For want of a rider the message was lost. For want of a message the battle was lost. For want of a battle the kingdom was lost. And all for the want of a horseshoe nail.’

The earliest reference to the full proverb may refer to the death of Richard III of England at the Battle of Bosworth Field in 1485. This short variation of the proverb was published in ‘Fifty Famous People’ by James Baldwin. Richard III is unhorsed in the rhyme, but, historically Richard’s horse was merely mired in the mud. The reference to losing a horse is directly linked to the titular character famously shouting ‘A Horse! A Horse! My Kingdom for a Horse!,’ in Shakespeare’s ‘Richard III’ (c. 1591).

Kings are often considered Knights as well, which links the ‘Knight’ variation to this story, and it also explains the ‘kingdom’ reference prevalent in many of the variations. Even the later Ben Franklin variations printed during conflict between England and America, when American culture and politics were shedding any reference to Kings and England – would have the references to a King stripped out of a popular proverb, further circumstantially enforcing the argument that this story is the source of the original proverb.

The proverb describes a situation in which a failure to anticipate or correct some initially small dysfunction leads by successively more critical stages to an egregious outcome. The rhyme thereby relates a conjectural example of the ‘butterfly effect,’ an effect studied in chaos theory, involving sensitive dependence on small differences in initial conditions. The rhyme’s implied small difference in initial conditions is the lack of a spare horseshoe nail, relative to a condition of its availability. At a more literal level, it expresses the importance of military logistics in warfare. Such chains of causality are perceived only in hindsight. No one ever lamented, upon seeing his unshod horse, that the kingdom would eventually fall because of it. A somewhat similar idea is referred to in the metaphor known as ‘The Camel’s Nose’: ‘If the camel once gets his nose in the tent, his body will soon follow.’

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