What Does No Quarter Mean?

If you’ve ever heard the phrase no quarter, you may be quick to think it has something to do with money—more specifically, a lack of pocket change. But in fact, this idiomatic expression isn’t about the 25-cent coin at all. Keep reading to discover its definition and military origin.

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What Does No Quarter Mean?

In everyday conversation, the idiom no quarter means “no mercy.” Typically the phrase is preceded by a form of the verb give; you may also hear the expression used with some form of the verb grant. If you give or grant no quarter, you treat someone—usually an opponent or foe of some kind—harshly. You don’t take pity on them or give them any leeway or concession.

Here are some example sentences using the idiom no quarter:

  • At the end of halftime of the football game, the coach told his boys to get back out on the field, give no quarter to the visiting team, and bring home the win. 
  • During the trial, I granted no quarter: I was relentless in my line of questioning with the witness and wouldn’t accept anything from him but the complete truth. 
  • My boss is ruthless and gives no quarter; it’s one strike and you’re out—zero warning, just a pink slip.

Born in Battle: The Origin of the Phrase

Long before the phrase began being used as an idiom with the figurative meaning shared above, it was used during military conflict to inform combatants, or soldiers, that they would be treated quite harshly indeed, i.e. put to death. In war, if one side said they granted no quarter, it meant they wouldn’t take in or care for military prisoners and would simply kill any captured opponents. Often, the expression was used by the victorious side in battle, say the commander of a victorious army, to share that they’d take no mercy on their captured enemies, even on those who surrendered.

It’s possible the phrase came to be because one meaning of the word quarter is “to provide with lodging or shelter.” (This use dates back to at least the late 16th century.) Knowing this definition, you can see how the expression may have arisen: If a captured enemy was to be allowed to live, they’d have to be given a place to stay; they’d have to be housed, or quartered. To give them no quarter then meant they wouldn’t have to be provided for. It was a death sentence. 

In the same vein, according to the Oxford English Dictionary and language experts, an antiquated meaning of the word quarter, used around Shakespeare’s time, had to do with having a good relationship with and engaging in fair conduct towards someone. The phrase could have potentially originated from this definition, and thus come to mean not being willing to treat an enemy well or fairly and/or not willing to negotiate or work toward a positive relationship with enemy combatants.  

Historians note that black flags and red flags were often flown by a side in battle to signal that no quarter would be granted. Perhaps the best-known example is the Jolly Roger: a black flag with a skull and crossbones used by pirates. Since blood is red, red flags were thought to be used to indicate that blood would be spilled.

While you could possibly still hear the phrase used militarily today, it’s important to note that under the current, modern-day laws of war, it’s forbidden for a side to declare that no quarter will be granted. Doing so would be considered a war crime. This rule was established with the Hague Convention and is binding in international armed conflict. 

No quarter isn’t the only idiom with a military origin: Read about the term brown-noser, which originated as military slang.

The Phrase in Pop Culture

The rock band Led Zeppelin recorded a song titled “No Quarter” for their 1973 album Houses of the Holy. Written by John Paul Jones, Robert Plant, and Jimmy Page, the lyrics reference Norse mythology and the Vikings, who were known for being fierce and cutthroat warriors.

A Similar Expression: Take No Prisoners

You may have also heard the expression take no prisoners. Very similarly to no quarter, this phrase can be used literally, in the sense of killing an enemy rather than holding them captive, or figuratively, to mean being ruthless and uncompromising when it comes to the opposition and achieving one’s goals. In this way, it is a synonym for no quarter. Just as one who gives no quarter shows no mercy, someone who takes no prisoners is merciless. 

Understanding Idioms

Today, no quarter is used as an idiom. An idiom is an expression that’s intended meaning can’t fully be deduced just by looking at the words that comprise it. These words and phrases have a figurative rather than literal meaning; they don’t mean what they appear to mean. Even if you’ve never heard the term idiom, you have most likely heard many idiomatic expressions. Here are just a few of the most common idioms used today:

You’re in hot water.
His boss gave him the ax.
It’s time to face the music.
You’ve hit the nail on the head. 

If you took the first example literally, you’d think it was describing a person standing in a bathtub full of hot water, perhaps. But the expression is actually used to describe a person who’s in trouble. Likewise, rather than literally being handed a tool for chopping wood, if you get the ax from your boss, it means you’re getting fired. It’s time to face the music means that it’s time to come to terms with the consequences of your actions. And when someone has hit the nail on the head, they’ve gotten an answer exactly right or done something exactly as it should have been done.

As mentioned at the start of this article, taken literally, the phrase no quarter seems to mean that someone doesn’t have a shiny 25-cent coin. If you tried to determine a more figurative meaning thinking along these lines, maybe you’d take the expression to mean that someone is low on funds and poor and struggling financially. But as you now know, the phrase is used figuratively to convey showing no mercy or indulgence.

Discover the meanings of many more idioms here

Summary

The expression no quarter means “no mercy.” It is typically written or said as give no quarter or grant no quarter; when you give no quarter, you don’t offer clemency or compassion to someone—you take no pity and grant no leniency. While it comes from war and military combat, it is now used figuratively in regards to any perceived foe or adversary. Often, you’ll hear the phrase used in discussing sports competitions or debates, but it could also be said, for example, that an editor shows no quarter when it comes to making corrections.