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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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)
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:
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.
I have no idea if it's related, but there's a French expression
It means more or less the same thing (never heard the English expression though): to flee discreetly, to run away.
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.
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.
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):
From Richard Brookes, The General Practice of Physic: Extracted Chiefly from the Writings of the Most Celebrated Practical Physicians, fifth edition, volume 1 (1765):
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):
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):
The next instance is from "Phony Promoter," in "Leonard Traube's Out in the Open New York," in Billboard (May 23, 1942):
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):
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):
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):
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):
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:
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:
And Robert Chapman & Barbara Kipfer, Dictionary of American Slang, third edition (1994), has this:
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:
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:
From "Sidelights of the Flaherty-Franciscus Debate at Brooklyn," in The Union Postal Employe (May 1919):
From "U.S.S. Helena," in Our Navy, the Standard Publication of the U.S. Navy (August 1920):
From H.C. Witwer, "The Shooting Stars," in Collier's magazine (June 11, 1921):
From William McNutt, "Cocky Lewis and the Luck Piece," in Collier's magazine (August 3, 1922):
From "Service Anniversaries," in The Inside Track (1923) [snippet view]:
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."
protected by tchrist Oct 5 '14 at 21:41
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