Take No Prisoners

“Miss Howe was taking no prisoners.” I came across that today while reading Maeve Binchy’s final novel, “A Week in Winter.” For some reason this phrase always causes me to stumble. If you don’t take prisoners, isn’t that a good thing?  I see now I wasn’t looking at the alternative. According to the free dictionary, the figurative meaning of take no prisoners is “to be extremely ruthless with the opposition.” And the literal meaning is to “kill the enemy rather then seize the enemy as prisoners.”  Ah, now I get it. I realize now that I understood the figurative but not the literal: killing the enemy is the alternative to taking them prisoner.  I was surprised to learn from Wise Geek that the British expression, “give no quarter”, which means to show no mercy, is related. That makes sense. And you? Were you already in the know about both the figurative and literal meanings of take no prisoners? Regardless, I hope to never hear this phrase applied to me.

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