A parting shot
This phrase is used to denote a remark, usually derogatory in nature, which is made by someone just before they leave the scene.
One possible origin for the phrase relates to the Parthians who were a warrior tribe from the north-west of what is now Iraq. They were renowned archers and horsemen and their tactic of choice was to pretend to flee from the scene of the battle and firing their arrows whilst travelling backwards. This caused confusion amongst their foes and must have been a successful tactic because by the first century BCE they had control of territories stretching from the Indus to the Euphrates rivers.
The English intelligentsia were certainly aware of the warrior race and their tactics in the 17th and 18th centuries. Samuel Butler, for example, makes specific reference in 1678 thus, “You wound, like Parthians, while you fly, And kill with a retreating eye.” A Captain Mundy who was aide-de-camp to Lord Combermere during a shooting trip to India in 1832 describes their encounter with a tiger, “Out rushed a little cub tiger of about three months, and charged me so courageously that my elephant took to her heels. I made a successful Parthian shot with my favourite Joe Manton [shotgun], and slew my determined little pursue”, the first recorded use of the phrase Parthian shot. The phrase was used in a metaphorical context by the Times in April 1842. The Thunderer recorded, “They have probably enough dealt a Parthian shot to British interests, by setting the Nacional once more upon its legs”.
Whilst all this sounds plausible enough, the problem is that the phrase we use today employs the present participle of the verb to part rather than the adjective to describe the fearsome warriors from the Middle East. And this allows another (and it has to be admitted, more prosaic) theory the opportunity to raise its ugly head. A parting shot is first recorded by John McLeod, a surgeon on the Alceste, in his 1818 blockbuster, A Narrative of a Voyage to the Yellow Sea. “The consort, firing a parting shot, bore up round the north end of the island, and escaped”.
The phrase soon began to be used figuratively. The Quakers in 1828 in The Friend or Advocate of Truth record, “I think it would be much more becoming…, if you could separate without giving each other a parting shot. If you could but use this short sentence, “we cannot agree and therefore we separate.”
I would like to think that the parting shot owes its origins to the tactics deployed by the Parthians. After all, it was well-known long before the first appearance of a parting shot and the usage of a parting shot clearly reflects an assault on the other party on the point of departure. Alas, there is no evidence that the one owes its origin to the other so the similarity of phrases may just be a coincidence. Take your choice but I’m with the Parthians!