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The earliest use of the phrase I can find is Horatio Nelson, urging his commander, Sir Hyde Parker, to attack the combined fleets of Russia, Sweden, and Denmark, moored off Zealand. When Parker dithered over the two choices of approach, Nelson burst out "Let it be by the Sound, by the Belt, or any other way, but lose not an hour."

His exclamation is famous, in its way, but was it original? The strange phrasing (even for 1800) suggest it was not.

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    I think the way this question is framed is somewhat misleading. So far as I'm aware, before do-support became widespread in English, Nelson's usage would have been the norm, not a possible original "coinage". Notice how lost not a moment has gradually given way to did not lose a moment over the past couple of centuries. Commented Sep 10, 2013 at 18:39
  • I wonder what other ways Lord Nelson may have had in mind. As far as I know, there are are no other (sea)ways to Copenhagen than by the Sound or by the Belt (and of course, even going by the Belt also entails going by the Sound). Commented Sep 10, 2013 at 18:43
  • It's not a set phrase. It's four words of plain English put into a plain English clause in a way that was common until quite recently.
    – Jon Hanna
    Commented Sep 11, 2013 at 0:20
  • @JanusBahsJacquet -- perhaps Nelson was just frustrated or perhaps he was being thorough, in the manner of his colleague Admiral Jervis, who said the next year, "I do not say, my Lords, that the French will not come. I say only they will not come by sea." Commented Sep 11, 2013 at 0:34
  • @JanusBahsJacquet: Exactly, there are no other ways. Nelson is basically saying impatiently: "I don't care how you get there, just go!"
    – Hugo
    Commented Sep 11, 2013 at 7:24

3 Answers 3

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"Lose not an hour" does appear in literature slightly earlier:

I conjure you lose not an hour in placing me under the sort of protection I solicited.

The Heiress (1786), John Burgoyne (1722–1792)

Burgoyne was an army officer (who fought in the American War of Independence) and politician as well as a playwright. That "lose not an hour" appears in a play would indicate that such phrases were not exactly uncommon.

However, Nelson's turn of phrase — taking into account the construction of the entire sentence — is poetic, rather like the memorable utterances of Churchill.

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Lose not an hour can be found before Nelson’s time (1758 – 1805), such as in The practical works of the late reverend and pious Mr. Richard Baxter from 1707:

And doubtless this is the best way to redeem time, and fee that we lose not an Hour, when we spend it only on Necessary things : And I think it is the way to be most Profitable to others, tho* not always to be most Pleasing and Applauded; ...

However, as old-fashioned as “lose not a” sounds to our ears, it’s probably just that: old-fashioned. I don’t think it would have sounded odd in the 18th or 19th centuries.

This Ngram chart suggests “lose not a” was more popular than “don’t lose a” (and “do not lose a”) during the 19th century, plus a bit each side:

Ngram chart

(Note: Google processes “don’t lose a” as “do not lose a”.)

English has changed so that we now usually say “do not lose” or “don’t lose” rather than “lose not” (and likewise with other verbs). Remnants of the old way can still be found, for example in poetry and this from the King James Bible (1611):

Then said Jesus, Father, forgive them; for they know not what they do.

This sounds archaic (although now idiomatic) to our ears, but would have sounded normal in the 17th century. If we compare modern translations from the New International Version (2011) and New Living Translation (2007):

Jesus said, “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing.”

Jesus said, “Father, forgive them, for they don’t know what they are doing.”

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  • Why would the [verb] not construction come from a Norman French influence on English? The reduction of the ne [verb] pas circumfixal negation to a simpler [verb] pas type is much later than Norman times (and remains limited to colloquial language to this day), and the [verb] not type of negation is the common type found in all Germanic languages except English (except, partly, Afrikaans). Additionally, your example is incorrect: ‘to not lose’ (or ‘not to lose’) is ne pas perdre, since pas precedes infinite verbal forms. Ne perds pas is ‘do not lose’ in the imperative. Commented Sep 10, 2013 at 19:43
  • @Hugo: Don't forget "And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil." Commented Sep 10, 2013 at 23:56
  • 'Lose not an hour' means 'don't fritter away time' in your first example rather than 'be quick about it' in OP. Commented May 23 at 10:27
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"Lose not an hour" origin.

The origin will never be known. It is akin to asking "When did 'That's a big house' originate?"

Given the date - late 18th - early 19th century - the construction is completely unremarkable.

The verb to lose is used in the sense of (OED)

6.a. To spend unprofitably or in vain; to waste, get no return or result for (one's labour or efforts); to let slip (opportunities) without using them to good purpose; to waste (time).

1847 There is no time to be lost. F. Marryat, Children of New Forest vol. I. v. 86

1896 A..fellow who never lost a chance of making himself objectionable. G. N. Boothby, In Strange Company ii. vi. 55/1

This sense has been recorded since the 14th century, and the construction {Imperative - negative - object} was standard in normal speech until about 1400.

There is an interesting paper "The rise of auxiliary DO: verb-non-raising or category-strengthening?" by Richard Hudson, UCL, which describes the slow transition from "Lose not an hour" to what we would now expect: "Don't lose/waste an hour/any time", and at the same time concedes that the full transition to the periphrastic "do" is not complete.

The following summarises the story:

(24) a Auxiliary DO is introduced, allowing the option of using an auxiliary without changing the meaning.

b Adverb-preposing make subject-verb inversion awkward for verbs modified by adverbs, so auxiliary DO comes to the rescue.

c Further functional pressures exploit auxiliary DO to help speakers to avoid ambiguities in questions that contain an object, and to put the markers of questioning and negation near to each other. These pressures are grammaticised as constraints on full verbs in some questions, giving stage B of (12).

d Cognitive pressures for simplicity generalise these constraints to all full verbs, and re-express them as positive rules referring to auxiliary verbs, giving stage C of (13).

e Cognitive and functional pressures (including sociolinguistic pressures) combine to make this newly-enriched category more easily recognisable by allowing auxiliaries alone to be reduced to clitics and to take reduced n't.

f Cognitive pressures for simplicity and harmony have removed some exceptions, and are still removing others, thus tidying up the effects of earlier changes.

To which I would add that older forms of English are often used for rhetorical effect as (a) they are still comprehensible and (b) Their unusualness causes the listener to take notice.

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  • “[T]he construction {Imperative - negative - object} was standard in normal speech until about 1400.” That actually was my point. In 1624, when Donne wrote “send not to know / for whom the bell tolls” it was more-or-less normal (plus it scanned better). By 1800, it was definitely archaic. My question is was it a nonce archaism for effect, like Kennedy’s 1961 exhortation “Ask not what your country can do for you” — or was he quoting a well-known expression, as I would be if I started a sentence today with either “Ask not” or “Lose not.” Commented May 23 at 21:06
  • @MichaelLorton My question is was it a nonce archaism for effect, I hope that my to which I would add that older forms of English are often used for rhetorical effect as (a) they are still comprehensible and (b) Their unusualness causes the listener to take notice. answered that question.
    – Greybeard
    Commented May 24 at 11:38

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