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In the article of New York Times co-ed columnist, Maureen Dowd dealing with Republicans’ objection of the repeal of ‘don’t ask, don’t tell’ under the title, “Mad Men and Mad Women”, I came across an unfamiliar quote from Republican Representative (west Fla), Allen West - ‘like the camel getting his nose under the tent.”

Although, I guess the phrase means ‘poke and pry’ from the context of the following introductory sentence, correct me if I’m wrong. Is this the representative’s coinage, or established cliché? Can I use this phrase for a person who is curious?

“Republicans hate social engineering, unless they’re doing it. Wishing they had the power to repeal the repeal of “don’t ask, don’t tell” and get back to the repressed “Mad Men” world they crave, some conservative lawmakers grumpily quizzed upbeat military brass on Friday. “We’re starting to try to conform the military to a behavior, and I remember going through the military, we took behaviors and we formed it to the military,” said Representative Allen West of Florida, warning ominously (and weirdly) that “this could be the camel getting his nose under the tent.”

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up vote 11 down vote accepted

The idiom is an allusion to a story that takes place in Arabia, with this metaphorical moral:

If the camel once gets his nose in the tent, his body will soon follow.

In view of this, the meaning of the phrase like the camel getting his nose under the tent is rather distinct from poking and prying. This phrase would also not be appropriate to describe someone who is sneaky.

In context of the paragraph, the phrase means that what is happening now could just the beginning of what will happen.

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@peter of the corn. Again, this is Arabian origin. It's interesting. – Yoichi Oishi Apr 3 '11 at 6:58
Similar then, I suppose, to the tip of the iceberg and slippery slope? – Callithumpian Apr 3 '11 at 14:49
@Callithunpian Yes, although slippery slope has a slightly different nuance. – Peter Olson Apr 3 '11 at 17:01
@Peter of the Corn. I wasn’t able to imagine ‘Camel gets his nose under the tent’ means a small thing is a sign of the subsequent big disaster. It’s interesting expression. It reminds me that we had a big earthquake followed by a big tsunami, which brought bigger disaster than the former. Fukushima nuclear power plant could endure the Great earthquake, but not the rage of tsunami. – Yoichi Oishi Apr 3 '11 at 21:12
It's as described by apoor020 - the common English equivalent is closer to "Give them an inch and they'll take a mile." – mickeyf Apr 4 '11 at 1:35

Though peter is factually correct, I don't think he is able to get the nuance of the story across correctly.

In the story, a man seeks shelter from a sandstorm in his tent but leaves his camel outside. The camel asks permission to put his nose in the tent, and the man gives it. The camel then progressively asks permission to put more and more of his body in the tent and finally the man has to leave the tent because his camel is taking all the space.

The moral of the story is "Don't allow even small malpractices, because they will grow big eventually." (The focus is on the "don't allow" part).

So the phrase means that what is happening is a mistake, which although small, should be stopped.

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So I understand "Give them an inch and they'll take a mile." as you put is the closest analogy. – Yoichi Oishi Apr 4 '11 at 1:48
@Oishi - Yes. An almost perfect substitute. – apoorv020 Apr 4 '11 at 2:36

It's a common adage used in the Indo-Pak subcontinent, meaning if you give the camel room to fit his head in the tent, he would make space for his body himself.

If someone can get a part of his way, he would soon get the rest as well.

It is somewhat like a "foot in the door" usage.

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