In the “good old times” they were noted smugglers, and one day, seeing the coastguard on the watch, they sunk in the sea some smuggled whisky. When they supposed the coast was clear they employed rakes to get their goods in hand again, when lo! the coastguard reappeared and demanded of them what they were doing. Pointing to the reflection of the moon in the water, they replied,“We are trying to rake out that cream-cheese yonder.”

The gentle folk of Wiltshire England are called moonrakers today probably based on the tale in E. Cobham Brewer’s 1898 Dictionary of Phrase and Fable. In spite of the humorous dodge of the nocturnal buccaneers, who did not do all that of a good job of assuring that the coast was clear, the phrase still means pretty much the same thing today as it did at the turn of the 19th century. At its very heart it means that there is no danger of being spotted or that there is no one about or that there are no obstacles or dangers in the way. Formerly it was a military expression dating back to the 1500’s having to do with literally clearing away an adversary from a coastline. One example would be to use it as a tactic for laying groundwork for a safe invasion.

Before that the idiom enjoyed a completely different meaning. In 1485 Le Morte d'Arthur Malory wrote that, "Syr Beaumayns smote hym thorou the cost of the body." In this case cost means the side of the body because as Georgia from the Maven’s Word of the Day writes, “Coast comes from the Latin word costa, which means 'rib, flank, or side' and also gives us such words as intercostal and cutlet (through French cotelette 'little rib').” She also adds that,” The Indo-European root is kost which means 'bone'. Until about 1800, coast could be used for the side of the body of a person or of an animal ("a coast of mutton") or of anything at all,” like perhaps a shoreline or the water’s edge.

So maybe this is how the word coast in Middle English made its way into modern speech. It means, 'the side of the land' or 'the seashore.' Thomas Harman wrote in Caveat 30 (1567<)" Where these rufflares might well beholde the coaste about them cleare." By 1531 the phrase appears in print in recounting a vessel that had safely cleared the coast, then later Shakespeare used it in Henry VI as an allusion to visibility. The play was probably written in 1592 and concerns the events subsequent to the death of Henry V. The play includes the beginnings of the War of the Roses, the loss of Britain's territories in France and drew upon popular sentiments of the time. The portrayal of 15th-century noblemen attacking the city of Rouen would definitely have called to mind Essex's 1592 attempts at Rouen to aid the French in overturning a Protestant uprising.

In the play Winchester, the Head of the church accuses Gloucester, Named Protector of the English Realm of wanting to control Henry. There is a betrayal for power and fighting between their serving men erupts into a street brawl leaving the Mayor with his hands full. King Henry VI's biggest threats are his advisers and nobles, many of whom are involved in arguments with each other. Although young and inexperienced, he realizes what damage may be reaped by such dissension among the lords. In an attempt to quell the brawling in the streets the Mayor meets with Winchester and Gloucester in this scene from Act I, Scene iv:

    MAYOR.:

    Nought rests for me in this tumultuous strife

    But to make open proclamation:

    Come, officer; as loud as e'er thou canst:

    Cry.


    OFFICER.:

    All manner of men assembled here in arms

    this day against God's peace and the king's, we charge

    and command you, in his highness' name, to repair to

    your several dwelling-places; and not to wear, handle, or

    use any sword, weapon, or dagger, henceforward, upon

    pain of death.


    GLOUCESTER.:

    Cardinal, I'll be no breaker of the law;

    But we shall meet, and break our minds at large.


    WINCHESTER.:

    Gloucester, we will meet; to thy cost, be sure;

    Thy heart-blood I will have for this day's work.


    MAYOR.:

    I 'll call for clubs, if you will not away.

    This Cardinal's more haughty than the devil.


    GLOUCESTER.:

    Mayor, farewell: thou dost but what thou mayst.


    WINCHESTER.:

    Abominable Gloucester, guard thy head;

    For I intend to have it ere long.


    [Exeunt, severally, Gloucester and Winchester with their Serving-men.]


    MAYOR.:

    See the coast clear'd, and then we will depart.

    Good God, these nobles should such stomachs bear!

    I myself fight not once in forty year.
    Henry VI Part I
    Act I, Scene iv




Strangely though, neither Harmon nor Shakespeare connect the term with the idea of the coast is clear with smuggling. It wouldn’t be until 1868 when Edward A. Freeman penned The history of the Norman Conquest and wrote that,” The coast was now clear for Godwine's return,” which is remarkable because Godwine spent the early part of his youth running ill gotten goods as a pirate along the southern coast of England. And Swap adds that, "The Spanish version of this saying is "no hay moros en la costa," there are no Moors on the coast, presumably something that would have been important to know at the Strait of Gibraltar."

Sources:

coast, The Maven’s Word of the Day:
http://www.randomhouse.com/wotd/index.pperl?date=20010321
Accessed August 29, 2005

clear, Oxford English Dictionary
http://dictionary.oed.com
Accessed August 29, 2005.

Moon-rakers:
http://www.bartleby.com/81/11635.html
Accessed August 29, 2005.

Re: The coast is clear:
http://www.phrases.org.uk/bulletin_board/6/messages/792.html
Accessed August 29, 2005.

Henry VI, Part I , Sparknotes
http://cgi.sparknotes.com/hlite.mpl?words=coast,clear&pd=1&page=section5.html&guide=%2fshakespeare%2fhenry6pt1
Accessed August 29, 2005.

Public domain text from Henry VI by William Shakespeare:
http://www.gutenberg.org/etext/1765
Accessed October 23, 2005.

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