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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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6 Answers 6

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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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Hi, and welcome to EL&U. This is an interesting idea; if you could support your answer with sources, your answer would be stronger, and more likely to be viewed as correct. Please feel free to take the site tour and visit the help center for guidance on how to use this site. – medica Oct 6 '14 at 0:26

Three centuries of medicinal powders

I ran Google Books searches for the phrases "take a powder," "takes a powder," "took a powder," and "taking a powder." The earliest matches that these searches turned up use "take a powder" in the sense of swallow a powdered medicine. Here are four early instances. From William D'avenant, The Platonick Lovers (1636), reprinted in The Works of Sr William D'avenant Kt (1673):

Sciolto. Pray, Sir, be known to my Philosopher.

Theander. I must embrace him for my Friend.

Sciolto. Well, he hath done strange feats : you took a powder, and my Son too, there was no harm intended. You shall hear all within, perhaps find caule to swaddle my old Hide.

Gridonel. By this hand, Sir, were you not my Father, I would begin ; I thought y'had powder'd me, 'tis well the heat is past. Lord, how I dream't of Taffity kirtles, French Gowns, and fine Italian tires, that hung (methought) by my Bed side.

From Lives, English and Forein: Containing the History of the Most Illustrious Persons of Our Own and Other Nations, from the Year 1550, to the Year 1690 (1704):

Gundomar [the Spanish ambassador], on the News of the Sack of St. Thomas, and killing of 500 Spaniards, demanded audience with the Kin, and when he came into the Presence, cry'd out, Pyrates, Pyrates, Pyrates ; King James, at his Sollitation, publish'd a Proclamation to Apprehend Sir Walter Raleigh on his arrival at Plimouth, and Sir Lewis Stukely, Vice-Admiral of Dvon, had Orders to seize him, and bring him up to Town, which he did. On the Road Raleigh took a Powder of a Quack at Salisbury that made him break out, and look very ghastly, hoping, by his Looks, to move the King's Compassion, which wou'd not have been difficult, had that Prince's Pity been so easily touch'd as his Fear.

From Richard Brookes, The General Practice of Physic: Extracted Chiefly from the Writings of the Most Celebrated Practical Physicians, fifth edition, volume 1 (1765):

In the Winter Season, that is in January, many fell ill of a spurious Pleurisy, which was attended with a high Fever, an acute Pain in the Side, a dry Cough, exciting a most intolerable Pain, and Want of Sleep. They were bled in the Arm, and a buff Coat was generally on the Blood. They drank freely of Water-gruel, with Sage boiled in it. They were under a temperate Regimen, and took a Powder consisting of Nitre, diaphoretic Antimony, and Crabs-eyes, sometimes mixed with Vinegar and a few Ounces of Carduus Benedictus Water.

From The Trial of Frederick Calvert, Esq.; Baron of Baltimore, in the Kingdom of Ireland; for a Rape on the Body of Sarah Woodcock (1768):

Mr. Cox. Were the women there?

S[arah] Woodcock. One of them was, the other came afterwards. I took no notice, nor he neither, no farther than this ; my Lord said I was not well, and I must take a powder, (this was before breakfast, before I had eat any.) While we were at breakfast, he said to Mrs. Harvey. Miss wants something does she not? She said, yes, Sir, she wants some clean linen. He said, you shall go to Epsom and buy Miss some muslin for aprons and things, and she shall work, and that will divert her mind from sitting and thinking. While Mrs. Harvey was gone, he said I should go and take an airing in the boat.

The association of "take a powder" with consuming powdered medicine continued to be very strong through the 1800s and into the early decades of the 1900s, although the word powder itself had acquired other meanings. From The Ladies' Repository (February 1866):

ANOTHER POWDER.—A little boy five years old, while writhing under the tortures of the ague, was told by his mother to rise up and take a powder she had prepared for him. "Powder! powder!" said he, rising on his elbow and putting on a roguish smile, "mother, I an't a gun!"

The emergence of Broadwayese 'take a powder'

In Google Books search results, the first instances of "take a powder" in the sense of "leave quickly" appear in the early 1940s—and the main source of matches for the phrase is Billboard magazine. Billboard uses "take [or took] a powder" nine times in 1942 and 1943, and the only other occurrence of the phrase in its updated sense through 1943 that Google Books searches find is one instance in Life magazine, seemingly by someone who read Billboard.

Th first instance is from "T. Dorsey's Ork Office Fluffed For Bigger Game," in Billboard (March 7, 1942):

NEW YORK, Feb. 28.—With Dean Hudson's induction into the army and the ensuing break-up of his ork, Personal Management, Inc., Tommy Dorsey's elaborate band venture, is now a management office without any bands to manage. Harry James, the other Dorsey property, took a powder from the firm last month on the ground that nothing had been done for him. It is not known what has become of Alex Bartha and Harold Aloma, Dorsey's two minor league orks.

The next instance is from "Phony Promoter," in "Leonard Traube's Out in the Open New York," in Billboard (May 23, 1942):

It is more than six months since this column has enjoyed the extreme privilege of sounding off on Richard Ryan, promoter. Last October he took a powder from Bridgeport, Conn., where he presented an alleged rodeo in Newfield Park. But he took more than powder because he ran off with the receipts, not to mention appropriation of a car owned by one of the performers, and left all hands stranded. Mr. Ryan is a really distinguished exponent of the promoting craft.

The first discussion of the new sense of "take a powder" appears in George Frazier, "Broadwayese: A Scholar Examines the Quaint Idiom of a Primitive Section of New York City," in Life magazine (October 4, 1943):

Broadwayese is in fact an argot compounded of argots. It has borrowed both prodigally and indiscriminately, with the result that race track, baseball, Harlem, show business, the numbers racket, jazz and the underworld have all enriched it immeasurably. ...

In Broadwayese "a fine dinner" and "home cooking," for example, have no culinary associations. Instead, both are terms for a pretty girl. Similarly, "to take a powder" means, not to administer medicine to oneself, but to depart. But Broadwayese has a bewildering habit of abbreviating itself, with the result that "to take a powder" has now become simply "to powder," a verb completely devoid of cosmetic implications.

Reference works weigh in

Unfortunately, the Life magazine discussion offers no hint as to why the new sense of "take a powder" arose, or what the literal action it described might be. One very interesting discussion of those questions appears in Christine Ammer, The Facts on File Dictionary of Clichés, second edition (2006):

take a powder, to To leave quickly. The origin of the expression is obscure, even though it is relatively recent (twentieth century). Since about 1600 a powder has meant "a hurry," possibly derived from the speed of gunpowder. "He sett you to with a powder," that is, with a rush, appears in a play, Club Law (c. 1600), by an unknown writer. This meaning persisted well into the nineteenth century, mainly in Britain. In the 1920s, however, in popular literature, characters departing in haste were said to take a runout powder. P.G. Wodehouse used it in Money in the Bank (1942), "And have him take a runout powder? Be yourself, lady." One writer has suggested this might refer to a laxative, but that interpretation seems unlikely. Moreover, the French have a similar expression, Prendre la poudre d'escampette, "To take the scampering powder," or, in more idiomatic terms, "to bolt."

The laxative theorist that Ammer refers to may be Eric Partridge, who has this brief discussion of take a powder in a combined entry with do a fade, in A Dictionary of Slang and Unconventional English, fifth edition (1961):

fade, do a; take a powder. To disappear without paying rent: Canadian carnival workers': C. 20. The latter was adopted from U.S. and ha, since ca. 1940, been general Canadian s[lang]. Ex the 'moving' powers of a laxative powder.

Though Ammer considers this derivation unlikely, Partridge reached it despite being well aware of the earlier senses of powder that Ammer cites. Here is the entry for powder as a verb in the first edition of A Dictionary of Slang and Unconventional English (1936):

powder, v.i. To rush: coll. and dial.: lit. in Quarles, 1632, 'Zacheus climb'd the Tree: But O how fast ... he powder'd down agen!'; fig., from ca. 1730. O.E.D. Ex the raid explosiveness of power.—2. Hence, to spur (a horse)to greater speed: sporting (—1887). Baumann.—3. V.t. to 'camouflage' the fact that a horse is glandered: horse-copper': from ca. 1860.

The Francis Quarles quotation comes from "On Zacheus," number 67 of Quarles's "Divine Fancies." The full four lines where the expression appears are as follows:

Me thinks, I see, with what a busie hast,

Zacheus climb'd the Tree : But, O, how fast

How full of speed, canst thou imagine (when

Our Saviour call'd) he powder'd downe agen!

In any event, Partridge was clearly well aware of the gunpowder sense of the verb powder when he floated his laxative theory of "take a powder."

Harold Wentworth & Stuart Flexner, Dictionary of American Slang, first edition (1961), has this entry for the phrase:

powder, take a To depart; to run away; to leave without paying one's bill. From the earlier "take a run-out powder." 1939–40. [Example omitted.]

And Robert Chapman & Barbara Kipfer, Dictionary of American Slang, third edition (1994), has this:

take a powder ( or a run out powder) v phr by 1930s To leave, depart hastily, esp to avoid arrest or detection = POWDER: [examples omitted] {fr the magical powder of a magician or sorcerer, capable of making a person disappear or change form, a use found by 1688}

So the dictionaries' suggested sources of the phrase are gunpowder, laxative powder, and magical powder. They are much more nearly in accord on the point that "take a powder" emerged from the earlier phrase "take a runout powder." Let's look at some instances of that phrase now.

Early takers of runout powders

I ran Google Books searches for "runout powder" and "run out powder" (the latter of which also yields matches for "run-out powder," owing to the way Google Books Ngram searches handle hyphenated words). The earliest match for either spelling in running text is from Patrick Casey & Terene Casey, The Gay-Cat: The Story of a Road-Kid and His Dog (1914), where it appears to be from U.S. flash (hobo) argot:

"Oh, lan'!" she gasped. "I raikened I never should see you agin. I thought you had up in the dead of night an left me for good and all!"

"Aw, say, Mis' Heffernan! Aw, say now, ma'm; I wouldn't take no run-out powders on yer that way. I jes' was a-hangin' round the circus all day, that's all."

"The circus? Oh, to be sure. I had forgot it was here to-day. But I'm so all-over nervous and excited I don't know jest what I am a-doing."

From a drawing, photograph, print, or pictorial illustration registered in Catalog of Copyright Entries, part 4, volume 14, number 1 (1919) includes this item copyrighted February 1, 1919:

Some Janes take a run out powder on the judge.

From "Sidelights of the Flaherty-Franciscus Debate at Brooklyn," in The Union Postal Employe (May 1919):

Round 2.—Crowd gets impatient waiting for Franciscus. Rumor is afloat that he has taken a runout powder. Finally he shows up at 3.35 with an armful of literature.

From "U.S.S. Helena," in Our Navy, the Standard Publication of the U.S. Navy (August 1920):

Writes “Bimbo,” from the “Helena,” “We are still the old swan of the Yangtze, The "Wilmington" challenged us to a boat race. but when we slapped up a sack of good Chinese taels to back our team the "Wily Willie" took a run-out powder and called off the race. Marine crew, too, and we thought the marines never showed the white feather at any time. We also have a basketball team that will tackle all comers. Everything is "jake" in Captain Shoup's Navy."

From H.C. Witwer, "The Shooting Stars," in Collier's magazine (June 11, 1921):

How the so ever, Dug, I give a good account of myself with nature's weapons—i.e., my hands and feet—and by the time a harness bull comes running up the street, blowin' a sweet refrain on his whistle, why, I have knocked a couple of these ham-and-beaners for a string of silos, and Young Stillwell has performed like services for a couple more. The rest of our bewitchin' adversaries takes run-out powders when they hear the gendarme's whistle, Dug, and me and Stillwell does the same, leapin' into my bus and shootin' around the corner before the copper knows who's who.

From William McNutt, "Cocky Lewis and the Luck Piece," in Collier's magazine (August 3, 1922):

The kid looks at me an' kind o' sighed. "You're a darn poor manager," he says. "A good leader of men ought never to lose his temper. If I thought I needed handlin', I'd take a run-out powder after one flash at you. A guy with your disposition could never bring a youngster along—not a youngster that needed any handlin', he couldn't. But that's all right. You ain't goin' to worry me any. I'm Cocky Lewis."

From "Service Anniversaries," in The Inside Track (1923) [snippet view]:

George C. Wilhelm wants it particularly understood that he is not one given to taking run-out powders—(a soft impeachment which another similarly named cannot deny) but it is his intention to stay with the job until all's blue. He's been a conductor at Sutro since October 7th, 1912.

Perhaps most significantly, for the first thirty years of the phrase's existence—that is, well into the period when usage of "take a powder" with the same meaning had emerged and begun to catch on—Google Books searches doesn't find any matches for "runout [or run out or run-out] powder[s]" not prefaced by some form of "take a."


Several things seem fairly clear from the foregoing information. First, "take a powder" in the sense of consuming a medicinal powder goes back a long way—to the first half of the seventeenth century at least. And the competing senses of powder that are more than a century old (generic powder, gunpowder, magical powder, swiftness) scarcely show up in the form "take a powder" prior to the twentieth century. During the period between 1600 and 1900, "take a powder" seems to have been understood to refer almost exclusively to medicinal powders.

Second, the "disappear" sense of "take a powder," which seems to have emerged in the late 1930s or early 1940s, almost certainly arose not on its own, as a new expression, but as a shortening of the expression "take a runout powder," which appears in Google Books matches as early as 1914 (in a novel that used quite bit of U.S. hobo slang), and which became widespread in other subgenres of U.S. slang by the early 1920s.

Third, "runout powder" almost never appears in Google Books search results outside some form of the phrase "take a runout powder." This suggests that "runout powder" did not exist as an independent phrase in early twentieth-century English prior to its inclusion in the phrase "take a runout powder," but more likely arose by the addition of runout to the already existing (and still common) phrase "take a powder", used in the medicinal preparation sense of powder.

If these conclusions are correct, the remaining mystery is why hobo argot attached the word runout to the old phrase "take a powder." The sense of the resulting phrase is the same as would be the sense of "take a vanishing pill," but I haven't been able to find any explanation for why tramps and denizens of the underworld settled on runout.

In any event, "take a runout powder" dates to no later than 1914 and explicitly provides the "running away or leaving" element that the OP finds conspicuously absent in the shortened form "take a powder."

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