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Austin had distanced himself and his colonists from American filibusters in dramatic and determined fashion, but the sad escapade set a-rattling the sabers of many a newspaper editor in the United States and many a political firebrand in Mexico.

I can understand the sentence, but why the author uses set a-rattling the sabers of. I've googled and searched it in corpora, yet nothing comes up. Is anyone know similar sentences or something about it?

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  • 6
    Look up "sabre-rattling" or "saber rattling". This is a relatively common figure of speech.
    – R Mac
    Feb 5, 2020 at 14:50
  • Also, there, to set means to cause the sabers to rattle
    – Lambie
    Feb 5, 2020 at 23:44
  • Since we're talking about newspaper editors and it's the year 2020: triggered - that's what it means.
    – Mazura
    Feb 6, 2020 at 1:00

3 Answers 3

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It looks like a combination of two standard phrase forms:

  1. set a-verb, which means simply to start the operation of the verb.

    For example, to set a-flutter is to start {something} fluttering. This form often seems to diminish or trivialise the verb.

  2. saber rattling (or sabre rattling), which means to deliberately telegraph a threat, or otherwise communicate a threatening posture

So, while you can find plenty of examples of both in isolation, this particular combination may be original.

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  • It should be noted that using "a-" in this sense is fairly common but informal.
    – Hot Licks
    Feb 5, 2020 at 16:51
  • 1
    Yes, Useless and Hot Licks are right. In addition, however, the use of this particular expression is inept. 'Sabre rattling' is, as Useless says, a kind of threat. A swordsman, instead of taking his sabre out and striking a blow, leaves it in its sheath and rattles it. What the author seems to be saying is (to continue the metaphor) is that a small army of journalists not just rattling their sabres but actually drawing them out of the scabbards and striking.
    – Tuffy
    Feb 5, 2020 at 19:33
  • @Tuffy Journalists can only rattle sabers; drawing the sabers requires soldiers. Feb 6, 2020 at 6:05
  • @Acccumulation Well, not really. Sabre-rattling is a graphic way to describe threatening behaviour. But the one thing the press cannot do is threaten, since the only threat it can make is of adverse publicity.
    – Tuffy
    Feb 6, 2020 at 7:34
  • I wouldn't say "threat" as much as belligerent posing. For a newspaper, I'd say that saber rattling would be articles about a hypothetical war, patriotic calls to arms, maybe lampooning of the target country, its politics or politicians, etc - but not threats per se.
    – Stian
    Feb 6, 2020 at 13:35
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Sabre-rattling (or saber in American English) is an idiom with the sense of 'rattling one's sword in its scabbard as though threatening to draw it' https://dictionary.cambridge.org/dictionary/english/sabre-rattling

Here, the writer has turned the phrase round. The meaning seems to be 'made them behave in a threatening manner' rather than a reference to actual military action.

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    I am fairly certain it is an idiom from rattling the scabbard of the saber against something, especially the floor - borrowed from Spanish: en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Saber_noise
    – Stian
    Feb 6, 2020 at 13:38
  • @StianYttervik I didn't know that - I just guessed the literal meaning from the figurative one. Thank you. Feb 6, 2020 at 13:50
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A phrase with a similar meaning that might be used today would be:

Austin had distanced himself and his colonists from American filibusters in dramatic and determined fashion, but the sad escapade raised the hackles of many a newspaper editor in the United States and many a political firebrand in Mexico.

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