What does arms mean?

Arms are literally the appendages most people have on either side of their bodies, bet you didn't know that ...


But, it's also a term for weapons, especially guns (firearms). In some instances, arms can be slang for being cruel or cold-hearted (e.g., "That's arms, man!").

Examples of arms


Examples of arms
1 / 21 guns / lay down your arms / give up the fight
@SlatkaBezSecera, July 2018
March on, march on, since we are up in arms / If not to fight with foreign enemies / Yet to beat down these rebels here at home.
William Shakespeare, King Richard III, 1591
The @NRA is against 3D-printed guns because they were never about protecting the right to bear arms, they're about protecting gun manufacturers rights to make money.
@Pappiness, July 2018

Where does arms come from?

The word arm, as in those things you use to do “the wave” at sporting events, is a very old word in English—it’s found in Old English and comes from Germanic roots. Arms as in “weapons,” comes from the Latin arma, “tools of war,” which passed into English from French by the 13th century.

Blueridge Wallpapers
For all you word nerds … (we know you’re out there, right?!) historical linguists think both words: arms (the body parts) and arms (the weapons), do ultimately share a root in a hypothetical, ancient language, Proto-Indo-European, that means “to join” or “fit together.”

In the Middle Ages, arms referred to various weapons (e.g., bows and arrows, catapults) and equipment of war, including defensive shields and armor. In contemporary contexts, arms for weaponry can sound a little dated, except for expressions like arms race, first used in the 1920s for the competitive build-up of weapons between nations (e.g., nuclear arms race) and later extended as a metaphor for any competition.

Another common arms expressions is to take (up) arms, “to prepare for a (literal or figurative) fight.” Shakespeare’s Hamlet immortally used it in his famous To Be or Not To Be soliloquy … it’s a classic, OK.

To be, or not to be, that is the question:
Whether ’tis nobler in the mind to suffer
The slings and arrows of outrageous fortune,
Or to take Arms against a Sea of troubles,
And by opposing end them: to die, to sleep
No more…

The opposite, and just as familiar, expression is to lay down arms, or “surrender” or “stop fighting.” This is also used of actual or imaginary combat.

By the late 1600s, arms was narrowing to its current sense of firearms, such as pistols and rifles. These arms are at the center of the contentious language of the Second Amendment of the US Constitution adopted in 1791, with legal scholars and political pundits hotly debating its scope: “A well-regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed.”
A coat of arms was originally a type of outwear that medieval knights wore in battle. They bore heraldic symbols repping who they were and who they were fighting for. Families and organizations later adopted these emblems as crests. 

To be up in arms, which dates back to the late 16th century, means “ready to fight” and later, “very upset.” The expression comes from raised fists, but it does also show how “limbs” arms can overlap with “weapons” arms.

Who uses arms?

On its own, arms for “weapons” sounds more formal, showing up in more historical texts and legal contexts. Expect to hear arms, though, in discussion of gun rights in the US thanks to the language of the Second Amendment.

Also expect to hear arms in its verbal form, to arm, or equip with a weapon (e.g., if a cop yells “He’s armed and dangerous!”). Armed, here, usually means carrying a gun. 


Occasionally, people use arms as a modifier meaning “cruel, crazy, or cold-hearted behavior,” apparently playing on the notion of the deadliness of weapons (e.g., “That’s arms to make him walk home all alone like that in the rain.”). This dates back to at least 2002 and is relatively rare.

Arms is also the name of a 2017 Nintendo Switch game where players fight using springy, extendable arms. Here, arms are their arms.

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