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From Flappers to Rappers: American youth slang by Dr. Thomas Dalzell cites "take a powder" as a 1930s expression meaning to run away or to leave. Does anyone have any ideas why taking a powder would mean running away or leaving?

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5 Answers 5

up vote 3 down vote accepted

The phrase take a powder meaning to "scram, vanish," is probably from the 20's; it was a common phrase as a doctor's instruction, so perhaps from the notion of taking a laxative medicine or a sleeping powder, with the result that one has to leave in a hurry (or, on another guess, from a magician's magical powder, which made things disappear). Powder blue (1650s) was smelt used in laundering; as a color name from 1894.

(The Word Detective)

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I believe the doctor angle. Take a powder and lay low was a common expression.. It probably is derivative of take a powder and lay down. –  David M Mar 11 '14 at 12:13
Josh - is this a guess (whoever clever and/or accurate) or did you read this somewhere with some backing? –  Joe Blow Aug 20 at 19:05

In American usage, the "powder room" is a euphemism for the ladies lavatory, and the phrase "to powder one's nose" indicates the immediate exit of a lady toward this room. Thus, it is to leave, rather quickly, but with discretion, and without further comment. It appeared in movie and gangster novel lingo in the 1920's, meaning to depart hastily, in the interest of discretion (usually to avoid trouble).

See Webster's Third New International Dictionary for usage of "take" at the beginning of a phrase. To "take a walk", "take a stroll", "take a drive", and dozens of others are found here. The colloquial shortening of to "take a powder room break" down to "take a powder" cannot be verified, but all attempts at phrasal etymology admit failure in this case. So, now, I take a powder.

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I’m not from the 1920s. I have always wondered what taking a powder meant; I loved hearing it in the old gangster movies and now I know. I too had believed and accepted it as a slang medical term used by doctors back in the “Good Old Days”, as my father used to say. –  user89811 Aug 30 '14 at 8:44
Bertie - is this a guess (whoever clever and/or accurate) or did you read this somewhere with some backing? –  Joe Blow Aug 20 at 19:05

Personally, I’ve never heard this expression, so this is all unfamiliar to me.

According to the OED, the origin of the word powder meaning ‘hurry, rush’ is uncertain. It’s not new—the meaning has attestations dating back to around 1600.

They say the following about its etymology:

Perhaps an alteration of pother n. by association with powder n.1 [the regular meaning of ‘powder’, ed.]

Perhaps compare Scots uses of powder n.1 (from the late 18th and early 19th centuries respectively) in the senses ‘energy, force, fire, brains, gumption’ and ‘force or strength behind the delivery of a stone in curling’, both apparently originating from the sense ‘gunpowder’ (see Sc. National Dict. s.v. pouther n., v.).

It seems fairly likely that pother (disturbance, tumult, turmoil, commotion, fuss, agitation, worry, blather, smoky atmosphere) would be associated with, and eventually mixed up with, powder in some of the senses: it can be hard, if we assume a sense like “shooting off like gunpowder, with lots of noise and commotion, yet associated with something smoky and powdery”, to place exactly whether that is related to pother or powder, or just both.

Interestingly, the OED has no citations at all of the expression take a powder, only of the older expression (hurry off) in/with a powder. Then again, the most recent citation is from 1898, so that is perhaps not wholly unexpected, if take a powder is newer than that.

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The expression tends to be seen in the 1940s AmE crime novels. People would use it to say they were leaving town to avoid something unpleasant. –  David M Mar 11 '14 at 12:15

I have no idea if it's related, but there's a French expression

Prendre la poudre d'escampette

(poudre being the origin of the word powder)

It means more or less the same thing (never heard the English expression though): to flee discreetly, to run away.

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Since Wiktionary says escampette is only used in this phrase, possibly it comes from the English word scamper, which might mean that the whole expression is from English. On the other hand, one etymology of scamper is from Old French escamper, so possibly the Old French word survived solely in this French expression. –  Peter Shor Mar 11 '14 at 15:31
@PeterShor This is getting more and more interesting; ultimately escamper might come from latin campus, the etymology is so twisted that I don't think we can find whether it first occured in French or English. –  Pierre Arlaud Mar 11 '14 at 16:13

Take A Powder - Powder, or dirt dust, suddenly appearing on a quick exit. When a horse sprints suddenly to running, the powder dust trailing from the rear of the horse when it runs off.

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protected by tchrist Oct 5 '14 at 21:41

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