An introduction and guide to my series of posts "Corpora and the Second Amendment" is available here. The corpus data that is discussed can be downloaded here. That link will take you to a shared folder in Dropbox. Important: Use the "Download" button at the top right of the screen.
This post on what arms means will follow the pattern of my post on bear. I’ll start by reviewing what the Supreme Court said about the topic in District of Columbia v. Heller. I’ll then turn to the Oxford English Dictionary for a look at how arms was used over the history of English up through the end of the 18th century, when the Second Amendment was proposed and ratified.. And finally, I’ll discuss the corpus data.
Justice Scalia’s majority opinion had this to say about what arms meant:
The 18th-century meaning [of arms] is no different from the meaning today. The 1773 edition of Samuel Johnson’s dictionary defined ‘‘arms’’ as ‘‘[w]eapons of offence, or armour of defence.’’ Timothy Cunningham’s important 1771 legal dictionary defined ‘‘arms’’ as ‘‘any thing that a man wears for his defence, or takes into his hands, or useth in wrath to cast at or strike another.’’ [citations omitted]
As was true of what Scalia said about the meaning of bear, this summary was basically correct as far as it went, but was also a major oversimplification.
To see that the statement was an oversimplification, we need only look at the definition by Samuel Johnson that Scalia relied on. What Scalia quoted (“Weapons of offence, or armour of defence”) was only one of five numbered senses Johnson gave; the others are as follows (with example sentences omitted):
2. A state of hostility.
3.War in general.
4. Action; the act of taking arms.
5. The ensigns armorial of a family.
Scalia’s omission of these other senses is understandable: he quoted the sense that he thought was relevant and left out those he regarded as irrelevant. But whether intentionally or not, the omission of senses 2–4 loaded the rhetorical dice. (I’ll give him a pass on leaving out number 5.)
You’ll recall that the whole dispute over the meaning of keep and bear arms was about whether it meant merely ‘carry weapons’ (or more specifically, ‘carry weapons for the purpose of being armed and ready for offensive or defensive action in a case of conflict with another person,’ as Scalia contended) or was instead understood as having what Scalia described as “an idiomatic meaning that was significantly different from its natural meaning”, namely, ‘‘to serve as a soldier, do military service, fight’’ or ‘‘to wage war.’’ If you’re going to rely on Johnson’s dictionary as your authority, as Scalia did, then Johnson’s senses 2–4 strike me as being relevant. Senses 2–4 resemble the idiomatic sense of bear arms that Scalia referred to, in that they were figurative rather than literal. And there was obviously a close semantic relationship between senses 2–4 on the one hand and the idiomatic sense of bear arms on the other.
So Johnson’s dictionary by itself supports my statement that Heller’s short discussion of arms was an oversimplification. But Johnson’s entry is a only vague sketch, compared to the entry for arms in the OED.
By a stroke of luck, the entry for arms was fully updated in 2016, and is now part of the OED’s Third Edition. That’s significant because although the Second Edition was published in 1989, it consisted mainly of the contents of the First Edition, into which were merged the five volumes of supplements that been published in the interim. So the 2016 revision was the first thorough updating of the entry since it had first been published in 1885. Its advantages over the original include not only that it provides more information (especially etymological informations) but also that the information that is carried over from the prior edition is better organized and easier to assimilate.
Whereas Samuel Johnson listed three senses of arms that had something to do with war or the military—“a state of hostility”, “war in general”, and “the act of taking arms”, the OED lists many more, once the many phrasal uses of arms are added in. In fact, it lists such uses going back to Anglo-Norman, the version of Old French that was used in England after the Norman Conquest, from which arms was “borrowed” by Middle English. Among the Anglo-Norman senses that the OED gives for arms (and its variants armys and harmes) are ‘fighting, war’ (dating back to 1155), ‘the military profession’ (second half of the 12th century), and ‘intances of military prowess’ (around 1170 or earlier). And before that, in classical Latin (!), the senses of arma included ‘military service,’ ‘military action,’ ‘fighting,’ ‘armed strength,’ and ‘troops.’
This etymological prehistory is significant (as is and the subsequent history of arms in English), because it may help us overcome the fact that the English we know is not the English that was spoken in the 1790s. When the Second Amendment was proposed (along with the rest of the Bill of Rights), Americans’ understanding of it was a product of the linguistic environment in which they lived. The more we know about that environment, the better the chances that we’ll be able to accurately reconstruct how those Americans would have understood the text. While we obviously have no direct access to that environment, being aware of the linguistic history I’m discussing here will hopefully help us to at least partly make up for that inability.
For example, it’s easy for us to think that use of arms to mean ‘weapons’ was the word’s “literal,” “basic,” or “core” meaning, and the senses of the word having to do with war and the military were extensions of that sense. But the fact that the “extended” senses existed in Anglo-Norman suggests that when arms became part of English proper, all of these senses came along with it. If that’s the case, what basis is there to assume that the ‘weapons’ sense is any more basic or central than any of the other senses?
And the OED provides reason to believe that this suggestion is well-founded. The earliest attested use in English of arms (around 1250) is a figurative use, which the OED gives as “[a]bstract or immaterial things used in a manner comparable to physical weapons.” The earliest known instance of the corresponding “literal” use was from a little bit later, in 1275:
Weapons of war or combat; (items of) military equipment, both offensive and defensive, munitions. In later use esp.: military equipment or weaponry owned, used, or traded by a nation, regime, etc. Cf. arms race n. 1.
Then in the 1300s we see arms being used in additional military-related senses:
Armed combat as a professional activity; the military profession; service as a soldier. [Earliest known use circa 1300.]
Fighting; war; active hostilities. [Circa 1325.]
Brave, skilled, or renowned acts of armed combat; instances of military prowess. [Around 1393.]
(Note, by the way, that all the senses I’ve mentioned so far, as well as those that I’ve yet to get o, are reported by the OED as having been in use at least through the end of the 18th century.)
I’m going to move on now to military-related phrasal uses of arms. The earliest of these that is listed is bear arms, with the first attested use being around 1325. I’ll discuss these in the post dealing specifically with that phrase. Moving chronologically, based on the date of first attested use, we next see the following relevant uses:
to arms!: “collect your weapons; prepare to fight” [circa 1330.]
to take (up) arms: to arm oneself; to assume a hostile attitude either defensive or offensive; to prepare to fight. [around 1420.]
force of arms: “the use of weapons or arms; military or violent means”. “Usually in by (also with) force of arms. [1529 (and possibly as early as 1430).]
man-in-arms: “a soldier, a warrior; a (heavily) armed man.” [circa 1540.]
to rise in arms: “to prepare to fight for one’s country, a cause, etc.; to join or form an armed force.” [1563.]
to lay down (one’s) arms (and variants): “to put down or stop using one’s weapons; to surrender; to stop fighting.” [1568.]
to turn one's arms against (also occasionally towards, and variants): “to wage war on; to attack.” 
up in arms: “Willing or ready to fight; actively engaged in an armed struggle, protest, or rebellion.” [1576.]
to carry arms (against): “to wage war (against)’” [1580.]
to call (also summon) to arms (and variants): “to summon to prepare for battle or armed conflict”. [1592.]
under arms (and variants): “ (of an army, nation, etc.) equipped with weapons or arms; in battle array; ready to fight”. [1637.]
to lie upon one's arms: “to rest while still equipped with weapons or arms; to remain alert or ready to fight, esp. after a battle.” [1690.]
call to arms: “a summons to prepare for battle or armed conflict.” [1702.]
I’ve omitted the example sentences that accompany each of these entries, but a copy of the entries with the examples here (I may not get to it right away, so if it’s not there when you try to download it, check back in a few days.)
AS WE’VE SEEN, Johnson’s dictionary provided reason to believe that when Justice Scalia said that in the 18th century, arms meant weapons, he was oversimplifying things. And the the OED showed that the picture painted by Johnson was itself an oversimplification. In addition to giving a more detailed account of the different ways that arms by itself could be used in referring to various aspects of war and the military, it listed more than a dozen idiomatic phrases enabling the expression of an even wider variety of meanings. And when we look at the corpus data, we see even more variety; there is a profusion of phrasal uses that the OED doesn’t list. More importantly, we can get an idea of the relative frequencies of the different uses, something that dictionaries can’t tell you.
The pattern seen in the data is one in which, outside the unusual context of fighting the Revolutionary War, the “nonliteral” military-related uses greatly outnumbered the uses in which arms simply meant ‘weapons.’ And even in the context of fighting the war, roughly a third of the uses conveyed nonliteral military-related meanings.
I’ll talk about the results in more detail, but first I need to take a detour through some methodological weeds.
The data I reviewed came from two corpora: COFEA (the Corpus of Founding Era American English) and COEME (the Corpus of Early Modern English), both of which are part of the BYU Law Corpora.
- COFEA (the Corpus of Founding Era American English), which includes texts from several sources, dating from the period 1760–1799. Thof which three are significant here: (1) the Evans Early American Imprint Series, which contains books, pamphlets, sermons, and so on, (2) the National Archives Founders Papers Online project, which contains correspondence and other materials from the papers of George Washington, Benjamin Franklin, John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, Alexander Hamilton, and James Madison, and (3) Hein, which contains legal materials such as statutes, cases, legal papers, and legislative debates.
- COEME (the Corpus of Early Modern English), which consists of materials that I think are generally similar to the kinds of materials in COFEA from the Evans collection; in fact, some of the texts appear in both corpora. However, COEME differs from COFEA in that, if I’m not mistaken, COEME includes texts that were published in England as well as the United States, while COFEA is limited to American publication. COEME also includes texts going back to 1475, but I limited my searches to the same 40-year period as is covered by COFEA.
In COFEA there were roughly 24,600 hits for instances of arms that had been tagged as nouns, and in COEME there were roughly 51,500 hits from the period I focused on. (From what I saw the accuracy of the tagging was in the range of 99%.) I originally downloaded 1,000 concordance lines from each corpus—a concordance line consisting of a use of arms with a small chunk of the text that immediately preceded and followed it. After eliminating duplicates within each data set and somehow losing 19 lines to gremlins, I was left with 982 lines from COFEA and 875 from COEME. In reviewing the COFEA data it quickly became apparent that it was dominated by results from the Founders and Hein collections (707 compared to 275 from the Evans results), I therefore downloaded additional data, with the source restricted to Evans, so that I had the virtually same amount of data from Evans (706 lines) as I had from Founders and Hein.
In addition to eliminating duplicate concordance lines within each set of downloaded data, I deduplicated the lines that appeared in both COFEA and COEME by removing each overlapping line from one of the corpora. Most of those deletions were made in the COFEA data and are accounted for in the final figures for the COFEA data in the previous paragraph. In the last round of deduping, the duplicate lines were removed from COEME rather than COFEA, resulting in the number of concordance lines from COEME being reduced to 685.
In all cases, the deduped data had confidence intervals below 5.0 at a 99% confidence level and below 4.0 at a 95% confdidence level..
OUT OF THE WEEDS, onward into the results.
In the COFEA documents that did not come from the Evans collection, there were twice as many uses of arms to mean ‘weapons’ (413 concordance lines, plus 13 that I wasn’t sure about) as there were uses that conveyed the broader ‘military/war” sense (213). In contrast, the pattern of relative frequencies in the other documents was reversed, with there being more than twice as ‘military’ uses than ‘weapons’ uses. In the COFEA Evans documents, the ratio of ‘weapons’ to ‘military’ was 75 to 290, making ‘military’ uses 3.8 times as frequent as ‘weapons’ uses. In COEME, the ratio was 112 to 262, so ‘military’ uses were 2.3 times as frequent as ‘weapons' uses.
I think that this striking difference is attributable to the fact that of the COFEA results that excluded the Evans documents, more than 90% of the concordance lines came from the Founders collection. As you’ll recall, that collection consists of correspondence and other materials from the papers of the top six Founding Fathers: Washington, Franklin, Adams, Jefferson, Hamilton, and Madison. Among those documents was extensive correspondence about the progress of the Revolutionary War—thus my reference above to “the unusual context of fighting the Revolutionary War.” A recurring topic in these documents is (not surprisingly) the procurement, management, and use of weapons. And the word that was used for ‘weapons’ in these documents was arms. (The likeliest alternative, weapons, is much less frequent than arms in the Founders documents, and my impression is that the when weapons does appear, it occur in the same kinds of documents as arms does.)
Here are some examples of the uses of arms that I’m talking about (all of which are from the Founders collection):
About 4000 besides those in the Field will probably be the Number provided they can get Arms Accoutrements & Tents: but there is at present so lamentable a Deficiency in those Articles that I very much fear Difficulties
he found two men recently killed by the appearance of their blood being fresh with their packs and arms lying by them, that he proceeded to Gage ’s Hill, from whence he had a good view of the Lake
of those who may be Collected, there will not be more than one fourth of them that will have their Arms, many of them you [ may ] depend have thrown away their Arms with an expectation of getting Home by it
Your application to Commodore Tilly for arms meets our approbation.
18th 1777Sir I have the Honour to enclose all the Accounts we have in the Office of the State of Arms & military Stores.
Notwithstanding the strict and repeated Orders , that have been given against firing small arms, it is hourly practised, All Officers commanding Guards, posts and detachments, to be alert in apprehending all future Trangressors.
And here are examples of uses from the COFEA Evans documents and from COEME in which arms means ‘weapons’:
This man had, in defiance of the king's proclamation, made a practice of selling arms and ammunition to the Indians, whom he employed in hunting and fowling for him [COFEA Evans]
The indictment also charges him with having assisted in procuring arms, which no doubt were to be employed against the government of the country [COFEA Evans]
Suppose a body of Frenchmen to arrive at Boston, with arms and ammunition, which men may carry for their own defence [COFEA Evans]
THE zeal of the tribe of Zebulun was conspicuous on the occasion. Fifty thousand of its citizens, with arms in their hands, marched to the capital [COFEA Evans]
On a day appointed, the inhabitants, by general consent took their arms, and surrounded a large swamp which they penetrated in every direction, as far as it was practicable; [COEME]
they may, by the same rule, oblige them to furnish cloaths, arms, and every other necessary [COEME]
In contrast to concordance lines I’ve just quoted from, here is a sample of those in which arms is used to in one of its senses related to the military and war-fighting:
I will impose upon myself the drugery of saying something about the transactions of the 28th, in which the American arms gained very signal advantages; and might have gained much more signal ones. [Founders]
I have the pleasure to congratulate your Excellency on the success of the American arms in this quarter, in the reduction of fort Slongo on Long Island on the morning of the 3d instant . The [Founders]
enemy are undoubtedly concentering their force, upon a presumption, that there is imminent danger of an attack by the united Arms of France and America. [Founders]
How far there is a moral Certainty of Extending the American Arms Into Canada In the Course of next Campaign [Founders]
How far there is a moral Certainty of Extending the American Arms Into Canada In the Course of next Campaign [Founders]
to Sir Henry Clinton, on the 12th of May. A series of ill success followed this unfortunate event. The American arms in South Carolina were in general unsuccesful, and the inhabitants were obliged to submit to the invaders [COFEA Evans]
Their feeling remonstrance was answered by contempt, while the cords of oppression were drawn still harder; till the arms of Britain appeared on our shore. Their feeling remonstrance was answered by contempt Their feeling remonstrance was answered by contempt [COFEA Evans]
From this period, the affairs of America assumed a promising aspect, aided by the victorious arms of France, and guided by the unerring councils of that accomplished general, consummate statesman, and most virtuous citizen [COFEA Evans]
an opportunity of asserting their natural right as an independent nation, and who were even compelled by the arms of their enemies to take sanctuary in the temple of Liberty [COFEA Evans]
Finally, I want to point out a finding from the data that was I hadn’t anticipated. The majority of the uses that I categorized as expressing the ‘military’ sense were phrasal uses. And the variety of those uses is truly impressive—I previously described those uses as a “profusion”—and most of them aren’t listed in the OED:
able to bear arms, appeal to arms, appear in arms, arise in arms, arms and arts, bear arms [military sense], bear arms against, bear arms in defense of, call to arms (against), carry arms against, clangor of arms, clash of arms, companions in arms, din of arms, enter into arms, exercise of arms, feats of arms, flee to arms, following arms, force of arms, glory of arms, in arms (against), inequality of arms, into arms, issue of arms, lay down arms, lay/lie on arms, men at arms, profession of arms, recourse to arms, recur to arms, resort to arms, rise (up) in arms, rouse [somebody] to arms, roused to arms, run to arms, rush to arms, science of arms, slew to arms [should probably be "flew to arms,"], sound of arms, stand (forth) in arms, stand to (their) arms, stimulate [some person or entity] to arms, take arms (against), take to their arms, take up arms (against), taken in arms, terror of arms, throw down (their) arms, thunder of arms, to arms, took up arms, train[ed] to arms, try my right by arms, tumult of arms, turn arms against, under arms, up in arms (against), urge [somebody] to arms, victorious arms
Here are examples of some of these uses:
The astonishing Success of the French in overturning every Country into which they have carried their Arms, has not satisfied them, but only proved a new Stimulous to their Greedy ambition of becomeing masters of the World
the British nation , which threatened the destruction of our commerce. The American policy was to negotiate before an appeal to arms was made. An envoy extraordinary to Great Britain was appointed.
therefore the consequence of their attempt to enforce their arbitrary exactions, and Americans indignant fly to arms.
These conquests they have gained incomparably more by intrigue and duplicity than by force of arms. Solemn professions of friendship, and a desire of peace, have been made a shield to cover the dark
the affectionate fears of our friends , to have conducted it prosperously amidst the conflict of a world in arms; is a task , which only the ignorant and thoughtless will deem light . And to have executed this task , without many
How fortunate and happy was it for America that, when she was driven to the dire necessity of recurring to arms in self dcfence, her eyes were directed to this accomplished CAPTAIN, to command her armies and direct the
made toward the bank , the whole party tumultuously crying to order, and, with the directors at their head, rose in arms to defend it
to the dreadful alternative of submitting to arbitrary laws and despotic government; or of taking up arms in defence of those rights and privileges, which thou , in thy goodness , hast conferred upon them as men
are to be carried, and can be carried, only by force of the soldiery, and the terror of arms, it is proof abundant that they are unlawful and unconstitutional.
to cloak his design under the cover of Parliamentary sanction. It may be, he desired to urge America to arms; that being vanquished (which seems to have been taken as a granted point)
COMING NEXT: I previously said that wasn’t going to do a post about keep arms, because I didn’t think I had anything interesting to say about it. After further thought, I no longer think that. So the next post will be a short one about keep arms. That will be followed by a substantially longer post about bear arms and then a post about keep and bear arms. Those two posts will be the most important posts in this whole series, for obvious reasons. And finally I’ll wrap everything up with some general observations.