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"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?

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2 Answers

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:

  • pull away, 2. To move ahead: The horse pulled away and took the lead in the race.

And conversely:

  • 21. (Individual Sports & Recreations / Horse Racing) (of a rider) to restrain (a horse), esp to prevent it from winning a race

And conversely to the converse:

  • 22. (Individual Sports & Recreations / Horse Training, Riding & Manège) (intr) (of a horse) to resist strongly the attempts of a rider to rein in or check it

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]":

one of the two horses ... would pull off the Two Thousand Guineas

(Plus a second almost identical passage in the next sentence.)

The reinstatement of Sunshine ... proves the immense confident entertained in his capacity to pull off the double event

it was in Sunshine's power to pull off the Cesarewitch


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:

The fact is, that a little seclusion will do me no harm, so shall lie by and try to pull it off over the Liverpool Cup.

The fact is, that a little seclusion will do me no harm, so shall lie by and try to pull it off over the Liverpool Cup.

And by the same writer and the same column on 17th June, a similar phrase when discussing horse races:

As for Ascot or the Ledger, you shall have them all in good time, and is much mistaken if I do not pull off both events as succesfully as Epsom.

As for Ascot or the Ledger, you shall have them all in good time, and is much mistaken if I do not pull off both events as succesfully as Epsom.


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.:

The game's well worth the winning; but he must be a beau joueur, indeed, who shall pull it off!' And then 'The Bey' had to take his share in the cross play of badinage and brilliant trifling it pleased Valerie to engage in.

The game's well worth the winning; but he must be a beau joueur, indeed, who shall pull it off!' And then 'The Bey' had to take his share in the cross play of badinage and brilliant trifling it pleased Valerie to engage in.


An 1867 edition of The Eagle magazine by St. John's College, University of Cambridge has uses pulled it off in a sports report:

The number of players on each side prevented any individual good play, still the match was of a very exciting nature, but our men pulled it off, thus winning for the third time in succession.

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:

We shall pull it off, my Lord, safe as houses.

To hear'them, one would not have the slightest doubt of their sanguine hopes of success.

"You told Challoner to hold him in till the finish, Powell," said Peep o' Day's owner.

"Ay, ay, my Lord; never fear!" chuckled the astute old trainer: "We have made that ere little business all right, and last night as ever was, a small chap we had got to watch Athleta taking his gallop, said that he was short in the stride, and looked pumped at the end of it. We shall pull it off, my Lord, safe as houses."


An 1866 The Suburban Magazine describes a rowing race victory:

only by the sheer pluck of our crew, pulled it off

rowing all the four-mile distaince with their bow close to our No. 2's oar ; and only by the sheer pluck of our crew, pulled it off. They earned us about, the ZRC, on their shoulders after the race, filling the air with their shouts. Ah, it was a glorious time !


Tony Pastor's Book of Six Hundred Comic Songs and Speeches (1867) is used when betting at the races:

pull it off

An 1868 Baily's Magazine of sports and pastimes has two occurrences of a horse or jockey "to pull off the cup":

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Some more from 1869:


And a non-sporting use in the 1869 A London Romance by Charles H. Ross:

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“I didn't say that,” retorted Frank; “I've made a bit of money now and again. One is not always lucky. I don't complain; I shall pull it off yet. I don't want any one's help or sympathy. I'm quite capable of fighting my own battles.

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Great research, but doesn't answer the question. –  mickeyf Feb 6 '12 at 22:33
    
@mickeyf: it does answer the question, although not as definitively as I hoped. Q. Where does pull it off originate? A. Horse-racing, c. 1865 (probably). The modern implication of success is from a horse winning a cup. –  Hugo Feb 6 '12 at 22:46
    
By didn't answer the question, I meant that although it shows a lot of early usage, and perhaps the earliest, it does not show how that phrase came to mean what it does. How does/did "pulling" evolve into "winning"? We all know what it means, what we don't know is how it came to mean that. –  mickeyf Feb 8 '12 at 4:52
    
This reminds me of an old question of mine: Why can a bird be pulled but never caught Here, "pull" means to successfully pull young lady to bed. Seems likely that "pull" has always meant success in achieving something. –  Mari-Lou A Nov 18 '13 at 22:55
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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.

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Giving this one a score simply because of the reference to Partridge's dictionary. Took me several years to source the original two-volume set (which contains no entry for this in either book). –  The Raven Feb 26 '11 at 20:30
    
@The Raven: I find it on page 666 (no, really) in my "completely revised, updated, and enlarged Seventh Edition" of the tome ("two volumes in one"). That would be in the dictionary proper, not the supplement. –  Robusto Feb 26 '11 at 20:37
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Aha! Yes, here in the 5th edition, same page, same entry: 1887, Black, "We haven't pulled it off this time, mother." OED. –  The Raven Feb 26 '11 at 21:06
    
My intuition is that it started with reference to a robbery (perhaps train?) or heist and went to sports from that direction. Or perhaps magic? The way you pull off a curtain and something disappears? Still digging! –  ghoppe Mar 26 '11 at 22:00
    
Less like a curtain than a rabbit, I think. If he doesn't pull off exactly a rabbit, he's toast. –  Kris Feb 7 '12 at 6:45
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protected by Hugo Nov 18 '13 at 20:23

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