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Origins: For Want of a Nail

Household Cavalry horse being shod. From bayourenaissanceman.blogspot.com

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 battle was lost,
For want of a battle the Kingdom was lost,
And all for the want of a horseshoe nail.

A cautionary tale that warns us of the importance of details, For Want of a Nail has appeared in a number of forms since at least as early as 1640, when Outlandish Proverbs was published by George Herbert, an Anglican priest:

For want of a naile The shoe is lost; for want of a shoe the horse is lost; for want of a horse the rider is lost.

The sentiment was certainly not new, as this proverb from John Gower‘s extremely long middle-English poem Confessio Amantis (c. 1390) shows:

For sparinge of a litel cost
Ful oftë time a man hath lost
The largë cotë for the hod.

The proverb was probably in the mind of Benjamin Franklin in 1758, when he said

A little neglect may breed mischief… For want of a nail the shoe was lost, for want of a shoe the horse was lost; and for want of a horse the rider was lost; being overtaken and slain by the enemy, and all for want of care about a horse-shoe nail.

As a proverb, the sentiment is expressed in many European languages, with Spanish, German and Greek all having a version of their own. As a rhyme, fully expanded, For Want of a Nail first appears relatively late, in Arthur Rackham’s Mother Goose, 1913.

The rhyme expresses what is often called the Butterfly Effect, and has been said, probably erroneously, to refer to Richard III’s death at the Battle of Bosworth Field in 1425 when he fell from his horse.

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