MEANING, ORIGIN & EARLY OCCURRENCES OF LAY ON, MACDUFF
Used in any situation calling for vigorous action, the imperative phrase lay on, Macduff means go ahead (and give it your best effort).
It is a quotation from the challenge that Macbeth issues to his enemy Macduff during their final confrontation in The Tragedy of Macbeth, by the English poet and playwright William Shakespeare (1564-1616)—in this passage, the imperative lay on means attack vigorously:
I will not yeeld
To kisse the ground before young Malcolmes feet,
And to be baited with the Rabbles curse.
Though Byrnane wood be come to Dunsinane,
And thou oppos’d, being of no woman borne,
Yet I will try the last. Before my body,
I throw my warlike Shield: Lay on Macduffe,
And damn’d be him, that first cries hold, enough.
—from ‘The Tragedie of Macbeth’, as first published in ‘Mr. William Shakespeares Comedies, Histories, & Tragedies. Published according to the True Originall Copies’ (London: Printed by Isaac Jaggard and Edward Blount, 1623)
The earliest occurrence of the phrase that I have found is from the Federal Republican (Georgetown, District of Columbia) of Tuesday 14th June 1814:
The English prints have, of late, indulged in language towards this country, […] altogether contemptible and to be despised for the little, low, malicious and vindictive spirit which it evinces. […]
Whether addressed to the American people collectively, or to either of the great parties into which they are divided, this style of menace and denunciation will be alike unavailing. Blows, and not words, decide contests between nations when the sword is drawn. If their country is disposed, able and prepared to strike—let them strike—lay on, Macduff.
The second-earliest occurrence of the phrase that I have found is of unclear meaning—it is from this rather obscure paragraph, published in The Spirit of the Times and Carlisle Gazette (Carlisle, Pennsylvania) of Monday 26th October 1818:
The Volunteer seems to enjoy himself mightily on the great victory recently obtained over the “combined forces.” We do not envy him his hilarity, nor do we blame him for his “skim-milk” sarcasms—the confederation deserve it Billy, therefore lay on Macduff
The following is from The National Advocate (New York City, N.Y.) of Wednesday 5th April 1820:
We should apologize to Mr. Zachy Lewis for having charged him with writing an editorial article, in this paper of Monday, in favour of Mr. Clinton—it was Mr. Stone, the rolling Mr. Stone, that did it. This eccentric star, who once blazed at Herkimer, then at Hudson, then at Albany, and then at Hartford, we learn will shed his bright rays in future o’er the columns of the Commercial, which, having for some twenty years maintained a kind of hum drum, good mercantile reputation, now pants for the honor of a glorious fight in the political arena. All that we have to say on the subject is, “lay on Macduff.” Mr. Stone might do well with the Commercial if pledged to religion, liberty and law; but he can do no good in politics were he even on our side—how can he expect to succeed, being against us?
MEANING & EARLY OCCURRENCES OF LEAD ON, MACDUFF
Macbeth’s words have been misquoted as lead on, Macduff, a phrase meaning let’s get going, start us off.
It is in this sense that the earliest instance that I have found of lead on, Macduff is used; the phrase occurs in the speech that one William Bellatti delivered at a public meeting of the inhabitants of Lincoln, held “in furtherance of the movement lately commenced in London, on the subject of Administrative Reform”—this speech was transcribed in The Lincolnshire Chronicle (Stamford, Lincolnshire, England) of Friday 25th May 1855:
For himself, he was willing to follow the lead of the men with whom this movement originated; and if, as he hoped, it would cause the redress of admitted grievances in our system, if it would lead to the realization of that beautiful principle of producing the greatest happiness for the greatest number, he would say—“Lead on, Macduff, and damn’d be him that first cries, Hold, enough.” (Loud cheers.)
The earliest occurrence that I have found of the shorter phrase lead on, Macduff is from an article about “the brutal monsters who murdered, with fiendish hate, the wives and children of our countrymen in India”, published in The Clare Journal, and Ennis Advertiser (Ennis, County Clare, Ireland) of Monday 26th October 1857—here, the imperative phrase means strike:
If, as it has been said, this mutiny is confined to the soldiers in the pay of Britain, let them then pay the penalty. This call does not include or contemplate either female or child, neither does it suppose that acts of cruelty should be perpetrated by our army. God forbid that such should be sought for by the people of England or Ireland; but it does call for this—that for every victim to the lust or cruelty of the Sepoy many, aye many, should be sacrificed, after trial by drumhead court-martial. If found with arms in their hands their trial should be short indeed. “Lead on Macduff.”
The second-earliest occurrence of lead on, Macduff that I have found is from a letter—published in the Louisville Daily Courier (Louisville, Kentucky) of Monday 26th April 1858—that a person signing themself ‘S’ wrote in response to an article in which one J. F. J. had criticised the Rev. A. Broaddus for publishing an “intemperate letter” on whisky selling:
If J. F. J. is not satisfied with what Broaddus has done, and wishes to pursue this tirade of abuse against the large class of merchants who have been, and expect to continue, selling ardent spirits at wholesale in this city, then lead on, Macduff.