"to pull it off" was at one time used meaning "to win."
And in sentences such as,
I don't think you can pull it off.
, it often implies the idea of "success."
But how did this expression originate?
I found some slightly earlier uses than the OED's 1870. All are from the UK. The majority are from magazines. Nine are about horse-racing, two about rowing, and one each for football and coursing, and one using an analogy of being a good player, and the last about being lucky in general.
From the citations below, it seems fairly safe to say pull it off comes from horse-racing, and that it's usually the horse that pulls off, and the it is the name of the race or the prize -- the cup or the stakes. This then spread into other sports.
But why pull? This isn't entirely clear, but some definitions of pull relate to horses:
And conversely to the converse:
The 1863 Stable secrets: or, Puffy Doddles ; his sayings and sympathies by John Mills has four occurrences of "[the horse Sunshine would...] pull off the [event]":
(Plus a second almost identical passage in the next sentence.)
An 1865 edition of Fun magazine has the following in the "Sporting Intelligence" column, the first from 11th November mentioning the Liverpool Cup horse race:
And by the same writer and the same column on 17th June, a similar phrase when discussing horse races:
An 1866 London Society magazine prints a small story called "Fast and Loose" that appears to be using it in an extended gaming analogy rather than directly.:
An 1867 edition of The Eagle magazine by St. John's College, University of Cambridge has uses pulled it off in a sports report:
Yes, this is not rugby but football (US soccer), but Cambridge rules.
An 1867 edition of The Illustrated London magazine also uses it in a horse racing context:
An 1866 The Suburban Magazine describes a rowing race victory:
Tony Pastor's Book of Six Hundred Comic Songs and Speeches (1867) is used when betting at the races:
An 1868 Baily's Magazine of sports and pastimes has two occurrences of a horse or jockey "to pull off the cup":
Some more from 1869:
And a non-sporting use in the 1869 A London Romance by Charles H. Ross:
Eric Partridge, in his A Dictionary of Slang and Unconventional English, says this comes from late 19th century sporting jargon meaning "to win". He cites two OED references, one from 1870 and the other from 1887.
Thank you for your interest in this question.
Because it has attracted low-quality or spam answers that had to be removed, posting an answer now requires 10 reputation on this site (the association bonus does not count).
Would you like to answer one of these unanswered questions instead?