meaning and origin of the phrase ‘How goes the enemy?’



“Tell me, man, how goes the enemy?”

cartoon published in the Sunday Pictorial (London) of 23rd August 1942



The colloquial phrase How goes the enemy? means What is the time?. Its origin was explained in the text where it is first recorded, published in the Brighton Gazette, and Lewes Observer (Sussex) of 26th October 1826:

My dear fellow, you kill time.—Joe Miller.

Sir,—l address myself to you as a very ill used personage, and that you may know who I am, I beg leave to ask, whether you have ever seen a portrait of a respectable, good-looking old gentleman, with an hour glass in one hand, and a scythe in the other, who makes amends for the want of hair on his head, by entertaining a very long beard on his chin. This, Sir, is my picture, and I suppose I need hardly now inform you, that I am Chronos, or Time, and though painters and sculptors hare thought proper to represent me without a shirt to my back, yet I can you assure you I come of a good family.
Now, Sir, you must know that several idle, ill-disposed persons, have been pleased to call me the enemy, and when they want to know any thing about me, they say, how goes the enemy? What says the enemy?

The following is the beginning of City Time, published in The Taunton Courier and Western Advertiser (Somerset) of 4th February 1846:

Among the many peculiar features which distinguish city from country life, not the least striking is the different estimation in which time is regarded. In the country, the rustic plods along the road, or leans over a style [= stile?], unknowing and uncaring for the hour, much less the minute. The deep tones of the church bell tell their tale to very careless and inattentive hearers; and the countryman thinks his watch correct enough if it be within a quarter of an hour of the village clock, in whose accuracy he places as much confidence as if old Time himself had the winding up of it every day. Very different, however, is the manner in which time is estimated in a large city. There, where thousands of persons congregate and where business of great magnitude is hourly transacted, it is of importance that strict punctuality be observed—that the standard of time be correct—and that time, even its most fractional parts, be not despised. Of course, without this arrangement, no plans or purposes could be satisfactorily carried out, and all would be disorder, uncertainty, and disappointment. It is, however, in a colossal city like London that we see in perfection Time exercising his uncontrolled dominion; and perhaps no city in the world could furnish such striking illustrations of its paramount importance. Here it is not enough that your watch is right by the parish clock; the question is, is it in accordance with St. Paul’s, or the Horse Guards? No genuine Londoner would think of passing either of those chronological standards without setting his watch right by it; which, having done, he talks of the time with authority, and “right by St. Paul’s” is an assertion which cuts short the dispute. In passing along the streets, too, what anxious pulling out of watches by evidently belated pedestrians, is observable on every hand; what railing of omnibus conductors for having stopped for “full five minutes.” Here a traveller, with his great coat and carpet bag, and his face glowing like a red coal, urges his way along the crowded street, fearful of being too late for the train; and there a cab is stuck fast in a crowded thoroughfare, the inmate of which raves that the steamer will have started in another five minutes. Here a tradesman from the west end is hurrying to get his cheque cashed at the banking house, the appointed hour for closing which is even now ready to strike; and there a country gentleman has arrived just in time to see the door of the public office whither he was bustling closed against him. Appointments are made to the minute: and a delay of five or ten minutes in keeping one, is at the hazard of disarranging the next. Clocks are conspicuous in most of the better description of shops; watches are ticking in every businessman’s pocket. “How goes the enemy?” is one of the commonest inquiries; and everything testifies to the immense importance of time in the social arrangements in a great city.

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