Paul Wolfowitz, head of the World Bank, is mired in a scandal over promotion and pay raises he arranged for his girlfriend, Shaha Riza. And according to the Economist (Woeful Wolfowitz, April 14, 2007), "the bank's staff association has already called on him to fall on his sword."
Fall on his sword?
Before definitions, I want to point out that Wolfowitz has been known, among other things, for championing a move to root out corruption in the World Bank's lending practices since taking the reins in 2005. Wolfowitz is also the man who was caught on camera to be wearing a pair of holed socks in a visit earlier this year to the Selimiye Mosque, in Edirne, Turkey. John Cassidy wrote in The New Yorker (April 9, 2007): "This time, as he (Wolfowitz) was leaving the mosque, he encountered a dozen or so news photographers who had gathered to document his visit. Bending down to change back into his shoes, Wolfowitz removed a slipper, revealing a large hole in the toe of one gray wool sock. Then he removed the other slipper, exposing another hole. Shigeo Katsu, the World Bank's vice-president for Europe and Central Asia, tried to step between Wolfowitz and the photographers, but it was too late. The camera shutters clicked."
Wolfowitz's anti-corruption initiatives and the holes in his socks apparently made Wolfowitz's generosity on behalf of his girlfriend all the more indigestible. The money in question to be paid to Riza, who also works at the bank, totals US$200,000 over five years.
Now back to the phrase. The call for Wolfowitz to "fall on his sword" is for him to resign.
The phrase "fall on one's sword", according to many, originated from the ancient Japanese Samurai practice of committing suicide by "hara kiri" (belly cut). The Japanese warrior used to kill himself with his own sword, by poking it into his belly, to avoid facing defeat, dishonor or ignominy.
In English, the term's literal meaning (kara kiri itself has all but died out in Japan) has given way to its figurative meanings. It is generally understood that for someone to fall on his sword is for him to assume responsibilities for his action and to be punished for his wrongdoing.
Wolfowitz certainly won't have to feel the blade of the sword or anything too sharp for a mistake that has punctured a hole, so to speak, in his reputation. He may not even stand down.
He had said he would not resign.