Close Quarters

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Close Quarters : Phrases


Close contact with, especially in a military context - close contact with the enemy.


This term has a nautical origin. In the 17th century hand-to-hand skirmishes onboard ships were known as close-fights. The term appears to have been applied both to those fights and to the barriers that sailors erected to keep the enemy at bay. Captain John Smith, in his record of early seafaring terms, - 'The Seaman's Grammar', 1627 is good enough to define the term:

"A ships close fights, are smal ledges of wood laid crosse one another like the grates of iron in a prisons window, betwixt the maine mast, and the fore mast, and are called gratings."

By the mid 18th century that confined defensive space was also called 'close quarters', i.e. the quarters (dwellings) where close fights were conducted. In 1769 William Falconer published 'An universal dictionary of the marine'. Given such an ambitious title we might expect 'close quarters' to be defined there. The good Falconer doesn't let us down and includes:

"Close-quarters, certain strong barriers of wood stretching across a merchant-ship in several places. They are used as a place of retreat when a ship is boarded by her adversary, and are ... fitted with ... loop holes, through which to fire."

'Close quarters' was in wide use as a military by both sailors and soldiers for two centuries or more before it began to be used in a figurative sense in other contexts. The earliest of these that I can find is from The [London] Times, 1805:

"Mr. D. on every occasion, followed him round the [boxing] ring, in order to bring him to close quarters."

The first reference that uses 'close quarters' just to mean 'close', i.e. with no fighting alluded to is also from The Times, 1819, in an exchange between the Lord Chancellor and a lawyer:

"Mr. Solicitor, we had better come to close quarters at once."

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