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Camel’s Nose Metaphor

November 18, 2012 by  

Camel’s Nose Metaphor, The camel’s nose is a metaphor for a situation where permitting some small, seemingly innocuous act will open the door for larger, clearly undesirable actions. A typical usage is this, from U.S. Senator Barry Goldwater in 1958:

This bill and the foregoing remarks of the majority remind me of an old Arabian proverb: “If the camel once gets his nose in the tent, his body will soon follow.” If adopted, the legislation will mark the inception of aid, supervision, and ultimately control of education in this country by the federal authorities.

According to Geoffrey Nunberg, the image entered the English language in the middle of the 19th century. An early example is a fable printed in 1858 in which an Arab miller allows a camel to stick its nose into his bedroom, then other parts of its body, until the camel is entirely inside and refuses to leave. Lydia Sigourney wrote another version, a widely reprinted poem for children, in which the camel enters a shop because the workman does not forbid it at any stage.

The 1858 example above says, “The Arabs repeat a fable”, and Sigourney says in a footnote, “To illustrate the danger of the first approach of evil habit, the Arabs have a proverb, ‘Beware of the camel’s nose.'” However, Nunberg could not find an Arab source for the saying and suspected it was a Victorian invention.

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