I often hear the idiom "falling off the wagon", as in "Has Robert Downey Jr. fallen off the wagon?" (i.e. Is he drinking alcohol again?). Where did the phrase originate? What wagon? And why is being "on the wagon" synonymous with being sober?
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From The Encyclopedia of Word and Phrase Origins, by Robert Hendrickson:
World Wide Words explains:
The OED say on the wagon is originally from the US and has it from a 1906 book by Bert Leston Taylor titled Extra Dry: being further adventures of the Water Wagon:
The OED has on the water wagon from a 1904 Dialect Notes:
I found several older examples. The Staunton Spectator and Vindicator (Staunton, Va., May 24, 1901):
The St. Louis Republic (St. Louis, Mo., January 18, 1903):
The Salt Lake Herald, (Salt Lake City (Utah), December 24, 1903) reports of "An English Blunder":
I'm on the water cart is claimed to have been first recorded in Alice Caldwell Rice's Mrs. Wiggs of the Caggage Patch (1901), but I found it in The Red Cloud Chief (Red Cloud, Webster Co., Neb., July 06, 1900) in "A Tragedy in Slums: Romance in the Low Life of New York":
Another origin: during the Temperance days, people repented their sins (often drinking) in evangelical churches and publicly declared themselves "on the water wagon" at town parades. The water wagon-- or any wagon that would hold a few people-- would be drawn along in a parade and the "repented sinners" would be on it. There would be some kind of identification-- repenting sinners etc-- and the idea was, you showed your self-reformation publicly so that other people could hold you to it.
If memory serves the opening scene of "The Wild Bunch" has a temperance wagon in it.
It is probably derived from the earlier idiom, "get on the bandwagon," which had just come into common use a few years earlier. The original form, "water wagon," may also have been a humorous alusion to "temperance wagons," (like Salvation Army wagons) that drove around cities preaching the gospel of abstinence. To be "on the water wagon" was to be "on the bandwagon" of abstaining from alcohol. To "fall off the water wagon" was to start drinking again. The phrase dates to at least, 1896. It appeared in the book, Checkers, a Hard Luck Story. A bicycle salesman from Chicago may have coined the phrase. http://esnpc.blogspot.com/2014/09/beer-wagons-water-wagons-temperance.html
the meaning dates back to the 1500's when prisoners were transported from the Tower of London down what is now Oxford st to be hung at the tyburn tree by marble arch. They were taken by cart and along the way they were given drinks by locals lining the street. By the time they'd reached half way they were often drunk and fell of the cart/wagon. Hence the expression
protected by tchrist Aug 13 '14 at 19:48
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