I heard a television commentator refer to recent statements from U.S. politicians about Russia’s invasion of Georgia as "saber rattling." That led to my thinking about why we use what sounds like a 19th-century term to refer to a 21st-century act.
It turns out, however, that "saber rattling" entered the English language in the 1920s, according to several dictionaries. The idiom refers to threatening behavior intended to frighten or to an ostentatious display of military power. The Oxford English Dictionary also gives "aggressive blustering" as a meaning. The TV commentator used it to label the politicians’ statements as threats of war or military action. A Wikipedia entry has an interesting explanation for the origin of the term.
A saber, of course, is a large sword often carried by cavalry officers. American dictionaries spell it -er and British dictionaries spell it -re.
This article was originally posted by the Raleigh News & Observer, a subsidiary of The McClatchy Co.; is posted here to provide continuity; and is copyright © 2011 The News & Observer Publishing Company, which reserves the right to remove this post.