That Dunkirk Spirit

This last Sunday I learned a new phrase. It caught me off guard and I instantly wanted to sink my teeth into its history.

My friend had just had a hectic afternoon in the British Tea Room at our World Festival. When I asked her how the day went she responded with, “Well, we all just jumped in, you know, and got through it. We pushed on with that Dunkirk Spirit.”

“Excuse me, but did you just say, Dunkirk Spirit?”

“Yes, oooh. I probably shouldn’t say that too loudly, this being Germany and all.”

I then explained that I had never heard this phrase. I knew the story of the evacuation of Dunkirk during World War II, but I had never heard anyone refer to teamwork in a stressful situation as “Dunkirk Spirit.”

Dunkirk 1940 c/o

Dunkirk 1940 c/o

Our friend Wikipedia defines and explains the term like this:

British propaganda later exploited the successful evacuation of Dunkirk in 1940, and particularly the role of the “Dunkirk little ships”, very effectively. Many of the “little ships” were private vessels such as fishing boats and pleasure cruisers, but commercial vessels such as ferries also contributed to the force, including a number from as far away as the Isle of Man and Glasgow. These smaller vessels—guided by naval craft across the Channel from the Thames Estuary and from Dover—assisted in the official evacuation. Being able to reach much closer in the beachfront shallows than larger craft, the “little ships” acted as shuttles to and from the larger craft, lifting troops who were queuing in the water, many waiting shoulder-deep in water for hours. The term “Dunkirk Spirit” still refers to a popular belief in the solidarity of the British people in times of adversity.

See, this is why I teach outside of the United States. That right there, is why I love working with my multicultural colleagues. They expose me to words, phrases, histories, mindsets, I would never have encountered at home. I love navigating through our individual cultures and quirks, even if it sometimes brings misunderstandings.  Through misunderstandings and mistakes, we learn how to be better human beings.

And finding this new phrase couldn’t have come at a better time.

We are quickly approaching the end of the year. The sun is shining, our classrooms are overheating, and our students are starting to mentally check out.  We are two weeks away from school trips.  When we return from trips we have 4 days of instruction, then three days of fun activities.

End of the year exams begin next week. Papers need to be graded. Reports need to be written. And rooms need to be cleaned and put away for the summer.

Plane tickets need to be bought. Summer plans need to be scheduled. Classes to renew my certification need to be registered for and taken.

It’s time for all hands on deck. It’s time to rally the troops. It’s time to push on through with that Dunkirk Spirit!  With the support of good colleagues, we’ll get it all done by June 19th.

Have you ever heard the term Dunkirk Spirit?  What phrases rooted in history do you use in every day conversation?



**In the coming weeks my posts may be a bit sporadic.  But never fear, you will see me consistently and punctually at least twice a week between June 19th and August 10th.

2 replies

  1. I’ve heard it before but I’ve never really thought of it. I don’t think it’s a phrase I’d necessarily use myself, but I know lots of people who do. I’m interested to see what other historical phrases other people use!

    • Well we certainly say “over the top” quite a bit although the meaning has morphed. I can’t quite think of a phrase though from a war or event in history that I use. No one yells “Remember the Alamo.” I have been on hikes or over nights where we didn’t bring enough food and we made several references to the Donner Party…. will have to pay more attention to my words to see if I can find another historic reference.

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