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What Does "Every Man for Himself" Mean?

By Mark Wollacott
Updated May 23, 2024
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The phrase “every man for himself” is used when people are trying to save themselves without consideration for others. It is a fragment of a larger medieval proverb from England. Dating from around the 16th century, the proverb, according to the Oxford English Dictionary (OED), said that it was “Every man for himself and the Devil take the hindmost.”

This term has come to be used in situations where there is danger, but also hope of salvation. It comes with a notion that helping other people will lead to everyone, or at least the individual, also being caught. The idea can be applied to criminals trying to escape the police, after, for example, a bank robbery. By invoking the idea, the fleeing individuals hope that someone else will be caught and they will survive. In this sense, it is akin to the joke where a person does not need to outrun a bear in the woods, he only needs to outrun his friends.

The origin of such an idea or phrase probably pre-dates the 16th century proverb. The resolution of most ancient, medieval and early modern battles ended with one army fleeing and the other trying to run them down. In turn, this is deeply linked to the Greek hoplites and the Anglo-Saxon shield wall. During the battle, as both shield walls push against the other, it is a team or group effort, but everything changes once one side breaks. “Every man for himself” in this sense is the fleeing men trying to save their lives as the victorious army runs down the losers.

Various types of media have used the proverb as a title, including a Beryl Bainbridge novel. It is also the title of an album by Hoobastank. Jean-Luc Godard used the title for his 1980 film about love and it was the title of a short film from 1924. It was also the title of the fourth episode of season three of “Lost.”

Media pundits on television and in the newspapers have also used “every man for himself” as a term for extreme libertarianism in America. This includes the policies of such politicians as Ron Paul of the Republican Party. Believers in a minimalist government range from Republican right-wingers to anarchist-communists. Most disagree about how much influence a minimalist government should maintain, but some believe it should be zero.

Language & Humanities is dedicated to providing accurate and trustworthy information. We carefully select reputable sources and employ a rigorous fact-checking process to maintain the highest standards. To learn more about our commitment to accuracy, read our editorial process.

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