"People fall into two camps" is a common phrase used to describe two groups of people with opposing or different views. Where does it come from?

  • 1
    Please add context: it greatly helps if you explain why you are asking. Also please add your prior research and what you found. Thanks.
    – MetaEd
    Feb 20, 2013 at 21:05

4 Answers 4


The word "camp" comes from the Latin word "campus", which means, essentially a "large open field" – however, the Roman campus had military connotations derived from Rome's Campus Martius, or the "Camp of Mars". It was traditionally a military training ground. In the transition to Old English, the word "camp" lost all notion of a "field", and it was used to mean a "contest, battle, fight, or war", though this definition became obsolete by the mid 1500's, and it gained its meaning as, essentially, a place to camp.

By the late nineteenth century, with traces of conflict still remaining, the word began being used to denote a "body of adherents of a doctrine or cause", and that is where the phrase comes from. It is a military-inspired metaphor, indicating the two opposing sides of an issue are in staunch opposition with very little common ground.

To "fall in", or "fall into", is an idiomatic phrase synonymous with "fit in". In this particular case, however, it may be a reference to another military term, "to fall in", meaning "to line up in a row, standing shoulder to shoulder".

  • Since you mention the Campus Martius, it occurs to me - wasn't that also where mass elections were held (for consul/tribunes/etc.) during the Republic? That might be an even more direct political connection...
    – MT_Head
    Feb 20, 2013 at 20:58
  • The Campus Martius was originally a farming ground, truthfully. Mars was the patron God of Rome, so it was named after the God of War without having any real connection to war, originally - over time, though, this became a military training ground, and then during the latter parts of Rome's history, it was reserved as a place for Triumphs (military celebrations) and other political events. Your point may hold some truth, though I am skeptical simply because of the fact that it was used in a strictly military fashion in Old English in French, our primary sources for the modern word.
    – Cmillz
    Feb 20, 2013 at 21:06
  • I don't actually think that the phrase's modern political usage derives from the Campus Martius being an ancient polling place - I suspect that the "camps" originally refer to army encampments on opposite ends of a battlefield - but since you mentioned the Campus Martius, I couldn't resist making the connection.
    – MT_Head
    Feb 20, 2013 at 23:23

In the phrase "fall into two camps", the word camp has the meaning of

A group of people who think alike or share a cause; side: The council members disagreed, falling into liberal and conservative camps.

The Online Etymology Dictionary says the use of camp with this meaning dates to 1871:

Camp Transferred to non-military senses 1550s. Meaning "body of adherents of a doctrine or cause" is 1871.

As to why the people always fall into a camp, I believe it's become an idiom. Maybe another ELU member can answer that.

  • Perhaps "falling in" also has a military origin.
    – Andrew Leach
    Feb 20, 2013 at 20:47
  • @AndrewLeach the military "fall in" is 18th C, that of agreement 17th.
    – Jon Hanna
    Feb 20, 2013 at 21:04

Camp was used figuratively of people holding a particular view by John Morley, in his The Works of Voltaire in 1871:

There are more kinds of Voltaireans than one, but no one who has marched ever so short a way out of the great camp of old ideas is directly or indirectly out of the debt and out of the hand of the first liberator, however little willing he may be to recognize one or the other.

We find the idea of two such camps being in opposition to each other by Edward Clood, in his Myths and Dreams in 1885:

In thus far illustrating the confusion inherent in the barbaric mind between what is and what is not external to itself, the explanation given of matters still dividing philosophers into opposite camps has been hardly indicated.

Combined with the older "fall into", it becomes understandable as a composed phrase at this point (that is, it isn't an idiom rather than a common turn of phrase, as each part of it works separately according to their separate meanings).


This is largely speculation.

According to The American Heritage Dictionary of Idioms, the phrase have a foot in both camps has its origins in the early 1900s and means:

Support or have good relations with two opposing sides. For example, He had a foot in both camps, making donations to candidates in both parties. In this expression, camp alludes to encampments of enemy troops in a battle.

Going by the corresponding ngram, the expression, fall into two camps, rose in popularity at around the same time and most likely after the expression, have a foot in both camps, did. Furthermore, I believe that the more common version of the OP's idiom is actually, fall into one of two camps. Google suggests that the formulaic fall into one of two [somethings] predates all these phrases by a goodly few decades. I venture to suggest that the OP's expression is a conflation of all these other phrases.

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