His brain is not involved

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?

17 thoughts on “His brain is not involved

  1. In French: “C’est un electron libre” (“he is a free electron”.
    It is not necessarily negative though: nothing wrong with being free. However, it does imply a lack of reliability: electrons move unpredictably in all directions.

  2. There is a south Indian proverb that roughly translated says the wise man in a chaotic wedding heads for the buffet table…

    it seems very Indian in as much as it wants to avoid conflict….

  3. “Met je hoofd boven het maaiveld uitsteken” meaning literal; Stretching out your head above the mowing field. Well, we can imagine what happens with your head, when the lawn-mower starts doing its job…
    Zich gedragen als een ongeleid projectiel. meaning; acting like a projectile which is going in a random direction.
    But most common used in Holland, and by the Dutch considered to say a lot about our nature is “doe maar gewoon, dan doe je al gek genoeg” meaning; behave normal, then you are behaving crazy enough.
    Ron

  4. In New Zealand: a “tall poppy”, which sticks out above its fellows and hence tends to get its head cut off.

    However the negative connotation does not attach to the poppy, but to those doing the cutting. The “tall poppy syndrome” is supposedly a characteristic of kiwi society, whereby the jealous and mediocre crowd pulls down those successful individuals who rise above them.

    It is regularly decried in the press, usually by those defending the supposedly successful from criticism.

  5. For a more precise definition of somebody who doesn’t “get along with the program”, though, I am not sure I can think of any close equivalent (though I would hesitate to assume that there isn’t. Frowning on over-achievers/non-conformists seems like a commonly observed “Swedish” thing, even allowing for that there are few places where it wouldn’t be the truth to some extent). There is the term “osäkert kort” (card that isn’t safe to play), but it refers as much to uncertain ability as to “sticking out”, and has a fairly resigned connotation to it (can’t change the value/color of the card, might have to play it anyway).

    Also, I’m not so sure that I’ve gotten the impression that a “loose cannon” is somebody who gets “fixed” (practical necessity as though it may be in the literal sense). Though I am of course not the expert, there.

  6. In addition to Ron: we also have a saying ‘hoge bomen vangen veel wind’ (= high trees catch much wind), meaning that if you are very visible more people will talk about you/try to damage you.

  7. Also, I’m not so sure that I’ve gotten the impression that a “loose cannon” is somebody who gets “fixed” (practical necessity as though it may be in the literal sense).

    Well, I think you may be right about that. It seems to me that part of the nuance of the saying is that it’s hard to restrain a cannon; the attempt might fail (or have already failed). Blades of grass, or nails that stick up; well, mowers and hammers usually win. Then again, simple avoidance is usually a pretty effective normalising technique.

  8. In Spanish it could be “El que se mueve no sale en la foto”, apparently coined by one of the socialist party bosses some years ago.
    It would translate to something like “If you move, you won´t be in the picture”, the picture being some of those self-congratulatory, group- photos politicians like to get taken when they feel they have done something important, to record the event for posterity. So basically, you either adhere to the party line or you´ll be excluded from the rewards (explicitly moral, but exclusion from more material benefits is also implicit) of politics. The threat of simple expulsion can also be inferred.

  9. I don’t see how the cannon expression is parallel at all: the loose cannon is unpredictable and presents a hazard to all nearby. There’s nothing in it that implies he’s accomplishing more than those around him.

  10. Saying that somebody is a loose cannon != saying that the nail that sticks out will be hammered down. As Duaneg mentions first, “tall poppy syndrome” is the quivalent of that Japanese saying (as is the Dutch saying quoted by Ron) as both complain of a cultural attitude that dislikes people who are “better” than the average. I’ll bet almost every culture/country in the world has an equivalent and when you ask them, almost every country will think it’s different elsewhere. The times I’ve heard it’s uniquely Dutch to hate succesful people…

    Saying that somebody is a loose cannon is much less neutral. A loose cannon aboard a ship is quite dangerous, a big heavy piece of metal rolling about can hurt you quite badly after all. A loose cannon then is somebody who can hurt their own side as badly as the enemy and doesn’t stop to think.

  11. The two sayings are completely different. The nail being hammered down does indeed refer to normalising. However, the loose cannon is refering to volatility of personality, more than simply difference to the norm. I think you should revisit this and come up with a saying that actually means what you are looking for.

  12. Saying that somebody is a loose cannon is much less neutral. A loose cannon aboard a ship is quite dangerous, a big heavy piece of metal rolling about can hurt you quite badly after all. A loose cannon then is somebody who can hurt their own side as badly as the enemy and doesn’t stop to think.

    Sure, but then again, might you not also stub your toe a bit nasty on a nail that hasn’t been properly hammered down yet? And whereas a tall poppy might quite a nice thing to look at, a mere nail that just happens to stick out is clearly less than impressive. A bit more work needed there, many would say.

    What about looking at things this way. With the hammer / nail saying, the balance of remedy to threat is skewed fairly heavily in the direction of the remedy (i.e. the hammer). With the loose cannon saying, the balance of remedy to threat is different; it seems as though the cannon might well win. I think this makes the loose cannon saying more oppressive, as rhetoric.

  13. I always imagined the loose cannon to suggest irresponsibility. Whereas the nail is hammered down just because it sticks out.

    Of course, the squeaky wheel gets the grease.

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