Into the Breach!

By Maeve Maddox

A reader experienced a moment of doubt when he came across an online essay ending with this line:

So, no cry of victory yet. Rather, “Once more unto the breach, dear friends!”

I forget. Is it supposed to be breach, as in the gap in a broken wall, or breech, as in the part of the gun where you load the projectile, unless the gun is loaded down the muzzle, of course.

I guess King Harry’s famous speech isn’t as famous as it used to be.

To the reader who knows his Henry V, the second line answers the question:

Once more unto the breach, dear friends, once more;
Or close the wall up with our English dead.

Act Three begins with Henry and his troops surging onto the stage. The men, carrying scaling ladders, are exhausted. Henry is encouraging them to make another assault on the walls of Harfleur. The “breach” is a gap in the city wall. Where Shakespeare says “unto,” we now say “into.”

The two words, breach and breech, both derive from a word meaning “break.”

The English word breeches meaning “trousers” derives from the plural of broc, “garment for the legs and trunk.” From this plural comes the word breech meaning “the part of the body covered by breeches.”

By extension the word came to be used in other contexts. A breech birth for example, is one in which the child emerges rear-end first. (Or in some manner other than headfirst.)

In gunnery the breech is
1. the hindermost part of a piece of ordnance.
2. the part of a cannon behind the bore
3. the corresponding part in a musket or rifle

Breech-loading cannon were used during the Hundred Years War. One of Joan of Arc’s military skills was the ability to judge their range. The breech-loading rifle came along in the nineteenth century.

You can read King Henry’s entire rousing speech here.

Sad P.S.
As an afterthought I did a search to see if anyone was writing “into the breech.” Oh dear. It’s all over the place. There’s even a band that calls itself that. As the professor in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe asks himself frequently, “What do they teach in schools these days?

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