meaning and origin of ‘to come the old soldier over someone’



In the sense of a person who is much experienced in something, old soldier has been in use since the 18th century, as in this passage from The History and Remarkable Life of the truly Honourable Col. Jacque, commonly call’d Col. Jack, who was born a Gentleman, put ’Prentice to a Pick-Pocket, was Six and Twenty Years a Thief, and then Kidnapp’d to Virginia. Came back a Merchant; was Five times married to Four Whores; went into the Wars, behav’d bravely, got Preferment, was made Colonel of a Regiment, came over, and fled with the Chevalier, is still abroad compleating a Life of Wonders, and resolves to dye a General (2nd edition – London, 1723), by the English novelist and journalist Daniel Defoe (1660-1731):

At length having pass’d the great Bank call’d the Divel’s-Ditch, I found him, and took him up behind me, and we Rode Double till we came almost to the end of New-Market Town; just at the hither House in the Town, stood a Horse at a Door, just as it was at Puckeridge; Now, says Jack, if the Horse was at the other end of the Town, I would have him, as sure as we had the ’tother at Puckeridge; but it would not do, so he got down, and Walk’d thro’ the Town on the right Hand side of the Way.
He had not got half thro’ the Town, but the Horse having some how or other got loose, came Trotting gently on by himself, and no body following him; the Captain, an old Soldier at such Work, as soon as the Horse was got a pretty way before him, and that he saw no Body follow’d, sets up a run after the Horse; and the Horse hearing him follow, run [sic] the faster; then the Captain calls out, stop the Horse, and by this time the Horse was got almost to the farther end of the Town; the People of the House where he stood, not missing him all the while.
Upon his calling out stop the Horse, the Poor People of the Town, such as were next Hand, run from both sides the Way and stopp’d the Horse for him, as readily as cou’d be; and held him for him, till he came up; he very Gravely comes up to the Horse, hits him a Blow or two, and calls him Dog for running away; gives the Man 2d. that catch’d him for him, Mounts, and away he comes after me.
This was the oddest Adventure that cou’d have happen’d, for the Horse stole the Capt. the Capt. did not steal the Horse; when he came up to me, now Col. Jack, says he, what say you to good luck, would you have had me refus’d the Horse, when he came so Civily [sic] to ask me to Ride? No, no, said I, you have got this Horse by your Wit, not by Design.

The phrase to come, or to act, to play, etc., the old soldier over someone means to use one’s greater age or experience to deceive someone or to shirk a duty.

It is first recorded (and was first defined) under the headword soldier in A new and enlarged military dictionary, in French and English: in which are explained the principal terms, with appropriate illustrations, of all the sciences that are, more or less, necessary for an officer and engineer (3rd edition – London, 1810), by Charles James (died 1821), army officer and author:

old soldier - A new and enlarged military dictionary (1810)

Old Soldier, a familiar phrase used in the British army to signify a shrewd and intelligent person. It sometimes means an individual who will not scruple to take advantage of the credulity or inexperience of others. Hence to come the old soldier over you.

I have found an early authentic instance of the phrase in The Lancaster Gazette (Lancaster, Lancashire) of Saturday 30th March 1811; this newspaper gave an account of the trial of William Whitaker and Ann Whitaker, of Bradford, for the wilful murder of William Steward, their apprentice in a thread manufactory:

Abraham Taylor, another apprentice of Whitaker’s, said, on the morning W. Steward died, the apprentices were washing themselves in the dye-house, and his mistress took the water-can from the window, and struck Steward on the back of the head, saying, he did not wash himself clean. Witness did not see any more; his master was not present. On the following day (Monday) Steward said he was sick; he was a bit short of doing all his work, and was beaten by his master with a pea-rod. On Tuesday he said he could not bear to work, but his mistress would not let him go down stairs, and in the afternoon she tied him to the stairs banister: (his master was not at home) he had a cord tied round his waist, and remained in this situation until loosed by the witness, after the master and mistress were gone to bed; he never spoke, but crept to bed, and was cold, very cold. Witness spoke to the deceased several times, but could get no answer; at last he grew so cold that he got up and told his master; his mistress said he was acting the old soldier; his master had a stick, and struck the deceased three times. Witness went away from his master’s house, at five in the morning, at his command, to George Field’s, at Bierley. Sarah Lofthouse fully corroborated the fact of the wound being inflicted with the can; she was washing herself at the same time, having just come down stairs, where she had been tied up. The Learned Judge addressed the Jury in very feeling terms, saying the charge of wilful murder could not be imputed to the prisoners; that they must acquit the husband; and return such verdict against the wife as to them appeared justifiable.—After some deliberation, a verdict of manslaughter was returned against the latter. The Judge, in passing sentence upon the prisoner, reprobated the “gross and cruel conduct” of the prisoners to those who, without friends or parents, had been intrusted to their care. The punishment of the offence here was slight; but there was a more awful tribunal, before which they must sooner or later appear; and where all the hidden things of this world must be revealed.

The following article, from The Hampshire Courier (Winchester, Hampshire) of Monday 10th June 1816, is interesting for what it says of early-19th-century medicine:

The Sleeping Soldier.—The case of this man having excited great interest, we have endeavoured to collect a few particulars:—On Monday last, a soldier of the name of William Duke, a private in the African Corps, into which he had enlisted himself in order to avoid a prosecution for poaching, was landed here, from Albany Barracks, reported to be in a state of somnolency; he had been in this state for a considerable time previous, at Guernsey, and was first sent from that island to the Isle of Wight. He was conveyed, the same day of his landing here, the Hospital at Hilsea Depôt, and his case being reported to the Medical Gentlemen there, they immediately proceeded to ascertain, if possible, the truth of his malady, pursuing such measures as were dictated by the necessity of the case, with a due regard to humanity. He was immediately electrified, which had a visible effect on every muscle, but without arousing him from his torpor: he bore the shock with apparent great firmness, but on the shocks being repeated, he evidently shrunk from them. The shower-bath was now had recourse to, the first of which he bore with composure, but was observed to crouch just before the second shower opened upon him, evidently exhibiting a knowledge of what he was about to receive. His head was then shaved and blistered—in full, every thing was applied and administered which reason and humanity would dictate, supposing him to be suffering under some malady—but without arousing him. It was now determined to watch him most narrowly, it being the opinion of all that he was an impostor, and was pursuing this plan with a view of getting his discharge. His pulse is usually at about 90, but on his medical attendants conversing loudly on what further experiments shall be had recourse to, his pulse gradually rises from 90 to 100, 120, and frequently to 130, betraying evident fear. Upon speaking harshly to him, and charging him with being an impostor, a blush is evidently seen to cross his face. His appearance is healthy, rather a ruddy complexion, about 30 years of age; his lips keep moving, as do also his eyelids, except when it is supposed he is in a natural sleep. His limbs feel hard and firm, and much improved since he has been conveyed to the Hospital. His usual diet is pretty considerable, namely, one pound of bread, a pint of milk, two pints of tea, half a pound of potatoes, and a quarter of a pound of meat made into soup. The above being put to his lips, he makes a slight motion with them, and swallows it. He is at all times ready to receive food. If placed in a sitting posture, he will remain without assistance. He was observed by one of his attendants, in the night, to turn himself on his side, and scratch his thigh; saving this, he always lays on his back, betraying no sort of uneasiness. One morning, when he was taking his food, part of a bitter aloe was placed in his mouth, which he immediately refused. A sudden noise near his bed head will make him start, which, with many minor appearances, causes a strong suspicion that he is playing the old soldier. The Inspector-General of Hospitals, J, Hennen, Esq. was present and superintended every operation, assisted by most of the Army Medical Gentlemen in the neighbourhood. We have thus fully entered into this business, to do away the idle reports that are circulated; and we blush for our neighbours, who industriously propagate falsehoods, that can have no other end than attempting to wound the feelings of the medical Gentlemen whose imperative duty it is to ascertain the true state of this man’s case. The crowds that daily flocked to the Hospital, caused an order to be issued by the Commandant, Capt. Eyre, that no one but his relations should be admitted: and we have authority for saying, that any one applying to the Commandant, and proving his relationship, will be instantly admitted to see him. We have seen him, and can assure our readers his appearance is most healthy. He has a sister in this neighbourhood, whose husband is a labourer in the Dock Yard; his wife is also here; all of whom have been to see him.

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