There’s a slightly notorious Japanese proverb: “the nail that sticks up will be hammered down”. For several weeks, M. and I have been trying to think of a British equivalent. We were both sure there must be one. Well, now we have a candidate. It’s the phrase: “he’s a bit of a loose cannon”.
Both sayings point to a normalising intent. The intent to normalise: it’s out there. And if we don’t like the idea of being normalised, we’ll find sayings such as these objectionable, perhaps even slightly embarrassing. And nails, hammers, cannons. All very instrumental. All very metal, for that matter. But there are differences. The Japanese saying is perhaps more fatalistic than disapproving. You sense regret that the hammer must fall; perhaps it would even be better if one or two nails were to remain sticking out. No such regret with the cannon. A half ton composite of iron and oak hurtling across the gun deck: that’s something nobody wants. And hammering won’t help: there’s no hammer big enough. Instead, a dozen strong and resolute men, with careful timing, must catch up with the careening twenty-four-pounder and restrain it. First with one rope, then with more ropes.
But that’s not all. A real cannon is big and heavy; on the loose, it really might maim or kill. The ‘loose cannon’ saying, on the other hand; well that gets said of people who threaten nothing more than saying something truthful and heartfelt at the sector strategy conference. And then there’s the qualifier: he’s a bit of a loose cannon. How mealy-mouthed is that?
Anyhow, AFOE readers: do other cultures have their hammer / cannon sayings?