Dear Quote Investigator: Historically, non-combatants have sometimes been deliberately attacked during warfare. A cruel motto has been employed to rationalize the targeting of young people. Here are three versions:
Nits make lice.
Nits will become lice.
Nits will be lice.
A “nit” refers to the egg of a head louse especially when it is attached to a human hair. Would you please explore the provenance of this saying?
Quote Investigator: Warning: This article discusses cruel and inhumane activities. The earliest evidence located by QI appeared in a 1683 book by an English historian named John Nalson titled “An Impartial Collection of the Great Affairs of State from the Beginning of the Scotch Rebellion in the Year MDCXXXIX to the Murther of King Charles I”. While discussing warfare in Ireland the author stated that barbarities were committed by combatants on all sides. He also stated that one of his relatives who had served in the military heard the motto spoken during battle. Boldface has been added to excerpts: 1
. . . I have heard a Relation of my own, who was a Captain in that Service, Relate, that no manner of Compassion or Discrimination was shewed either to Age or Sex, but that the little Children were promiscuously Sufferers with the Guilty, and that if any who had some grains of Compassion reprehended the Soldiers for this unchristian Inhumanity, they would scoffingly reply, Why? Nits will be Lice, and so would dispatch them . . .
Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.
An epistolary novel titled “Familiar Letters Betwixt a Gentleman and a Lady” published circa 1720 by Mary Davys included an instance of the saying. The setting of the following passage was described as the “Irish Rebellion”: 2
Children ripp’d out of their Mother’s Womb, and thrown to the Dogs, or dash’d against the Stones; crying, Nits will become Lice, destroy Root and Branch: with a thousand other Barbarities, too tedious as well as too dreadful to repeat, beside what has been transacted abroad.
A volume published in 1761 contained a section listing “Chinese Proverbs and Apothegms”. One expression about lambs was deemed similar to the saying under investigation. The author linked the motto to Oliver Cromwell who led the army that put down the Irish rebel forces from 1649 to 1653: 3
Look for horns in the head of a lamb newly brought forth.
[Parallel to that coarse but expressive saying of Oliver Cromwell, “Nits will be lice.”]
In 1765 the book “Historical Memoirs of the Irish Rebellion, in the Year 1641” cited the work of Nalson: 4
And accordingly, Doctor Nalson, Protestant Divine, and Historian, assures us, that, “the Severities of the Provost-Marshals, and the Barbarism of the Soldiers to the Irish, were such, that he heard a Relation of his own, who was a Captain in that Service, relate, That no Manner of Compassion or Discrimination was shewed either to Age or Sex, but that the little Children were promiscuously Sufferers with the Guilty; and that, if any, who had some Grains of Compassion, reprehended the Soldiers for this unchristian Inhumanity, they would scornfully reply, Why! Nits will be Lice, and so would dispatch them.”
In 1830 the “Western Times” newspaper of Devon, England published an article listing a miscellaneous collection of proverbs such as “To carry coals to Newcastle” and the following: 5
Oliver Cromwell’s was coarse but descriptive—“Nits will be Lice.”
In 1851 an article in the “Wayne County Herald” of Honesdale, Pennsylvania reported a confession made by a person named Tom Quick who had killed Native American children: 6
After all the bodies had been disposed of, he destroyed the canoe, and nothing remained but his own conscience, (which must have been a queer one) to tell of the horrible deed.
Tom did not relate the foregoing facts until it was safe for him to do so. Previous to his death, he repeatedly told them to Jacob Quick, Esq, of Callicoon. When asked why he killed the children, his invariable reply was, “Nits make lice!”
In 1866 an article in a New York newspaper printed an excerpt from a periodical in Idaho that contained an instance of the expression applied to Native Americans: 7
These are the wretches the Government pamper, and Governor Lyon’s sickly sentiment in favor of preserving them is all bosh. We say kill them off, the faster the better, without distinction—nits make lice.”
In 1942 H. L. Mencken included an instance in his massive compendium “A New Dictionary of Quotations on Historical Principles from Ancient and Modern Sources” with a citation from 1823: 8
Nits will be lice.
Ascribed to OLIVER CROMWELL in ISAAC D’ISRAELI: Curiosities of Literature, 1823
In conclusion, the saying was published by 1683 and was apparently spoken by soldiers who were fighting against a rebellion in Ireland. The phrase has also been employed by other individuals in later centuries. The precise phrasing has varied.
Image Notes: A 19th century depiction of the Massacre at Drogheda in 1649 from “An Illustrated History of Ireland from AD 400 to 1800” via Wikimedia Commons. Portrait of Oliver Cromwell by Samuel Cooper circa 1656 via Wikimedia Commons. Images have been cropped and resized.
(Thanks to Theric Jepson and “Prevent Genocide Org” whose inquiries led QI to formulate this question and perform this exploration. Also, thanks to Professor Jonathan Lighter and John McChesney-Young who helped QI to access the 1683 citation.)
- 1683, Title: An Impartial Collection of the Great Affairs of State: From the Beginning of the Scotch Rebellion in the Year MDCXXXIX, To the Murther of King Charles I: Wherein the first occasions, and the whole series of the late troubles in England, Scotland & Ireland, are faithfully represented. Taken from authentic records, and methodically digested, Author: John Nalson, Section: The Introduction, Quote Page vii, Printed for S. Mearne, T. Dring, B. Tooke, T. Sawbrige, and C. Mearne, London. (Early English Books Online 2 and HathiTrust) ↩
- 1720 (Date in WorldCat), Title: Familiar Letters Betwixt a Gentleman and a Lady, Author: Mary Davys, (Epistolary novel: Letter to Artander from Berina dated November 10), Quote Page 272, Publisher: Not specified. (Google Books Full View) link ↩
- 1761, Title: Hau Kiou Choaan: Or, The Pleasing History: A Translation from the Chinese Language, Volume 3, Section: Chinese Proverbs and Apothegms, Quote Page: 213, Printed for R. and J. Dodssley in Pall-mall, London. (Google Books Full View) link ↩
- 1765, Title: Historical Memoirs of the Irish Rebellion, in the Year 1641: Extracted from Parliamentary Journals, State-Acts, And the most Eminent Protestant Historians, Author: John Curry Quote Page 103, Publisher Location: London. (Google Books Full View) link ↩
- 1830 December 23, Western Times, Proverbs, Quote Page 1, Column 6, Devon, England. (British Newspaper Archive) ↩
- 1851 March 20, Wayne County Herald, Tom Quick and The Pioneers of the Delaware, Quote Page 1, Column 2, Honesdale, Pennsylvania. (Old Fulton) ↩
- 1866 May 26, New York Weekly News, Persecutions of the Indians, Quote Page 4, Column 2, New York. (Old Fulton) ↩
- 1942, A New Dictionary of Quotations on Historical Principles from Ancient and Modern Sources, Selected and Edited by H. L. Mencken (Henry Louis Mencken), Section: Louse, Quote Page 709, Alfred A. Knopf. New York. (Verified on paper) ↩