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I have often seen war described as "interminable boredom punctuated by moments of terror," or some variant thereof. More recently, it seems that I have been hearing this phrase used to describe other activities such as some jobs (i.e. long-haul trucking). I had always attributed this quote to Hemingway, but when I did so the other day I realized that I had no good reason for doing so. Several internet searches offer other attributions such as Emerson or any number of military men. As there seems to be no consensus, I thought I'd ask here. So,

Where does the phrase "interminable boredom punctuated by moments of terror" come from?

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    google found this for me: "Flying is hours and hours of boredom sprinkled with a few seconds of sheer terror."
    – Mitch
    Commented Feb 12, 2013 at 14:26
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    @Mitch, that quote must be well known by pilots. In Barry Lopez's essay "Flight" (published in About This Life and originally in Harper's October 1995) he quotes pilots describing flying as "hours of boredom punctuated by minutes of terror." It is not attributed, however.
    – JAM
    Commented Feb 12, 2013 at 15:59
  • Yes, I've always heard it (since perhaps 1960) used to describe piloting an aircraft.
    – Hot Licks
    Commented Sep 22, 2015 at 19:00

6 Answers 6

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This appears to have originated in the First World War, of which long, drawn-out trench warfare was a defining aspect, especially of the western front.

From a summary of Guy's Hospital Gazette (1914):

The best definition I have heard of modern warfare is, “Months of boredom punctuated by moments of extreme terror."

From a snippet of The New York Times Current History of the European War (1915):

Since then we have been doing infantry work in the trenches. We have been out of work on our trenches; only shrapnel and snipers. Some one described this war as "Months of boredom punctuated by moments of terror." It is sad that it is such a bad country for cavalry. Cavalry work here against far superior forces of infantry, like we had the other day, is not good enough.

The same phrase was used of the First World War such as The Fight for the Future (1916) by Edward Arthur Burroughs (Bishop of Repon)

"Months of boredom punctuated by moments of terror" : such is a description of life in the Navy which a naval lieutenant quotes as exactly fitting the facts. And one could quote many letters giving a similar impression of life in the Army, as it affects the type of man I have in mind, though here the ingredients are apt to be mingled in very different proportions, and the "moments of terror" may be ...

The same phrase, or variations thereof, have been used to describe wars in Algeria, Vietnam and Iraq, and often given as the definition of war, or at least war at the front.

Edward Bolland Osborn writes in The New Elizabethans: A First Selection of the Lives of Young Men who Have Fallen in the Great War (1919) of:

He takes great delight in the quaint sayings of his men. For example, that of a weary person, on whose face he had stepped while crawling to his sleeping place in a lean-to behind a barn. A weary voice muttered : " This is a blooming fine game, played slow." And after a very long march a trooper was heard saying to his very rough horse : " You're no blooming Rolls-Royce, I give you my word." He accepts somebody's definition of war as utter boredom for many months, interspersed with moments of acute terror -- "the boredom is a fact," he adds.

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Sentry-duty, with its moments of exaltation at moon-rise or under a sky full of stars, was a relief to what another New Elizabethan calls the " organized boredom " of modern warfare ...

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Later on he wrote, in a letter from the trenches, of the " organized boredom " of modern warfare.

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Julian Grenfell rather agreed with the definition of the war as "months of boredom punctuated by moments of terror." He loved the dangerous, tumultuous life at the Front, but regretted the use- lessness of cavalry there. "It is horrible" he wrote, " having to leave one's horse. It feels like leaving half oneself behind, and one feels the dual responsibility all the same."

George A. Birmingham's A Padre in France (1918):

Some one described war at the front as an affair of months of boredom punctuated by moments of terror. If thst philosopher had been stationed at a base he might have halved his epigram and described war as months of boredom unpunctuated even by terror.


This is a serious problem for the military. A paper called Hours of Boredom, Moments of Terror Temporal Desynchrony in Military and Security Force Operations (Peter A. Hancock and Gerald P. Krueger, National Defense University, 2010, PDF) addresses this problem and concludes:

The “hurry up and wait” aspect of military operations, involving long periods of boredom, has been around as long as warfare itself... It is intrinsic to all human warfare that periods of lassitude and inactivity frame the incidence of actual combat. ...

The notion of an automated and technological war might seem farfetched at present, and is far from the experience of combat troops on the ground. Thus, humans are still the central elements in current military and security-based operations, and the best policy for any commander or supervisor is to look after those human resources to the best of his/her ability. This means planning the temporal nature of the deployment experience is an important but as yet not fully resolved issue.

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    I've found one person from the era describing it as a "chestnut that must have seemed old to Noah", but I think you're closer to the truth than he; it does seem to be from the Great War.
    – Jon Hanna
    Commented Feb 12, 2013 at 15:18
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Early instances of the expression from World War I

The snippet from The New York Times Current History of the European War (1915) cited in Hugo's answer is actually taken from a letter dated October 27, 1914, written by "a cavalry subaltern" in the British army, published in the London Times (November 4, 1914). As Hugo notes, the relevant wording appears in the following paragraph:

Since then we have been doing infantry work in the trenches. We have been out of work in our trenches; only shrapnel and snipers. Some one described this war as "Months of boredom punctuated by moments of terror." It is sad that it is such a bad country for cavalry. Cavalry work here against far superior forces of infantry, like we had the other day, is not good enough. The Germans are dashing good at that house-to-house fighting business.

The instance in Guy's Hospital Gazette (also noted in Hugo's anwer) is actually slightly later than the London Times instance. It takes the form of a letter dated December 1, 1914, from Lieutenant Philip Smith of the 4th Royal Fusiliers, and appears in the issue of December 19, 1914. This instance runs as follows:

We went a few days ago to relieve a regiment in the trenches near here. I went down to take over the dressing station for the M.O. and found Maitland Scott! We in turn were relieved last night by the Gordons and Old Jamie walked in! I have seen quite a lot of him lately and he fairly enjoys this life—the only one whom I have met who does, though I would ten times rather be here than at the base. The best definition I have heard of modern warfare is, "Months of boredom punctuated by moments of extreme terror."

Interestingly, just two years later, an unidentified writer in "The Contributors' Column" in the The Atlantic (October 1916) describes the expression as a cliché:

The Great War has been described as months of boredom punctuated by mo- ments of intense fright.' Ellen La Motte, whom Atlantic readers already know through her 'Under Shell-Fire at Dunkirk' and 'Heroes,' corroborates the underlying truth of this cliché; and her long months of service in a French military field hospital, situated ten kilometres behind the trenches, give her the right to speak with authority.

By then, the Royal Flying Corps had requisitioned a form of the expression to suit its own particular experience, as we see in "Bravery," in C.G. Grey, Tales of the Flying Services: The Adventures and Humours of Aerial Warfare (1916):

One of our bravest men and most efficient officers in the R.F.C. defined air scouting under the conditions which held the armies in Flanders as consisting of "hours of idleness punctuated by moments of intense fear." His meaning was that there was none of the rush and movement of working with an advancing or even a retreating army, which keeps every one busy either moving to a new landing ground or improving the old one. It is simply a matter of killing time for hours waiting to get out on reconnaissance, then succeeds an hour or two hours of the weary round over the enemy's line, with moments when Archibald's attentions become so pressing that aviators are simply and honestly frightened.


Early nonmilitary instances of 'boredom [or idleness] punctuated'

Although the war saying very likely arose extemporaneously from the trenches, without intending to allude to any prior expression of similar form, I note several instances of "idleness [or boredom] punctuated" in the years before World War I.

From "A Bigelow Paper,"in The [London ]Liberty Review (March 1904):

Let one of our readers, like a certain friend of ours, put on a big pot, and offer to everyone who comes along the road a bowl of hot soup. Whether in England or in the Transvaal, in the reign of Edward VII. or the reign of Hammurabi, the certain result in a few weeks would be that twice as many men would shamble along the road as before. It would enter into the calculations of men in Edinburgh, or Cape Town, or Tarsus, as the case might be, when they were considering whether to enter on a course of idleness punctuated with larceny, that they would find encouragement at a certain stage. Yet this is what our Government deliberately does—renders it possible for any number of men, who prefer idleness; and the dissemination of disease and vermin to doing the work which is crying aloud for hands, to wander year by year about the land and prey on the industrious. It is pure ignorance or contempt of first principles that makes people ignore the difference between the possibility and the certainty of being kept in idleness.

From William Le Queux, The Count's Chauffeur: Being the Confessions of George Ewart, Chauffeur to Count Bindo di Ferraris (1907):

The life I led was one of idleness, punctuated by little flirtations, for by Bindo's order I was staying at the Palace as owner of the car, and not as a mere chauffeur. The daughters of Italian countesses and marchionesses, though brought up so strictly, are always eager for flirtation, and therefore as I sat alone at my table in the big salle-à-manger I caught many a glance from black eyes that danced with merry mischievousness.

From a letter from A.W. Goodenough of Norwalk, Ohio, printed in the [New York] Independent (June 6, 1912):

It never occurs to many to do anything but what is customary and conventional, like spending a few weeks in a hotel at a seaside resort. Except in a few external particulars how little life here differs from the ordinary round of fashionable society everywhere. It is the old program—dress, dinner, amusement, cards, dancing, fuss, feathers and silliness—in a word it is boredom punctuated by forced smiles and irrepressible yawns.

And from Ida Evans, "Flesh Under Fleshings," in The Saturday Evening Post (March 28, 1914):

A month later Norman strolled down the street as complacently swagger as the first narcissus of spring. The season had ended the day before, and three weeks of pleasant idleness punctuated by week-ends lay before him. He strolled alone. The four minutes of stage center had not made for loving friendship between him and his associates. They were all peeved except Schmidt, who the next day was taking passage to Paris and was too happy to be conscious of lesser matters.


Assessment

Both the British cavalry subaltern writing in late October 1914 and the British fusilier lieutenant writing in mid-December 1914 refer to the expression as a description or definition that they had heard from someone else. The characterization clearly dates to a fairly early point in World War I, at the latest and very likely probably originated in the British army.

Th nonmilitary instances from 1904–1914, although interesting, seem unlikely to have played any role in the formulation of the military saying—which within a couple of years came to be cited as a cliché, a "classic phrase," an "old definition," a saying invented by "some ancient wit," and "a definition of war which undoubtedly Noah would have regarded as a chestnut."

The expression may indeed accurately described life at the front of many wars—but it did not catch on in published writing until World War I.

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I first came across this phrase from the war journals of Jean Paul Sartre, when he described his role on the faux front. He said that his job was as a meteorologist and he went into great boring detail how, each day he would fill a balloon to a certain size and then walk a certain distance, and precisely at the agreed moment would release the balloon into the atmosphere while seeing how it behaved. "This we called: making meterological observation" he said, noting that a war is overcoming long periods of boredom, punctuated by moments of terror.

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    This is the start of a good answer. It could use a solid source and citation for your quote, and maybe some more information like which war/year this was.
    – Skooba
    Commented Aug 28, 2018 at 14:24
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First read this in a book by Ernest K Gann "Fate is the Hunter" many years ago. The book spoke of the perils faced in the early days of aviation.

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This pre-dates WW I. It was used to describe participation in the Civil War. In the 1880s, there were mock battles, reenactments, sentimental books, and acres and acres of bad, soppy poetry written about the 1860s. The soldiers who actually fought in it, however, described the set-piece battles in terms of "weeks and weeks of boredom punctuated by moments of sheer terror." The saying probably has much earlier origins.

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    Do you have some supporting references for this? You might also want to specify which civil war you're referring to...there have been many around the world during human history. Commented Mar 13 at 18:44
  • Yeah, an actual quote from that period would be great.
    – Mitch
    Commented Mar 13 at 19:06
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The aphorism "Boredom punctuated by moments of terror" is in short what Homer says about the Trojan War

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    Really? Wow. Do you have a quote to support this?
    – Marthaª
    Commented Nov 12, 2014 at 17:07

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