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"When push comes to shove" means "as a last resort" or "if absolutely necessary". Does anyone know why the phrase came to be used in this way?

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I always just assumed it meant, "when the going gets rough". As in, "when a polite push is changes to a forceful shove". –  Django Reinhardt Apr 21 '12 at 9:31

8 Answers 8

up vote 2 down vote accepted

According to this site, this term comes from rugby, where, after an infraction of rules, forwards from each team face off and push against one another.

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I'm not sure about this rugby scrum origin theory. I found a snippet of a 1981 William Safire column in New York Times Magazine article that indicates this guess was put forth by an AJ Gracia of Southbury, Connecticut. It goes on to call it an "offbeat etymology."

Etymonline has the phrase dated from 1958, but with no mention of rugby. I found the phrase used over a decade earlier (1947) in the English translation of Haitian Jacques Romain's Masters of the Dew done by Langston Hughes and Mercer Cook. Again, no rugby context:

It would be interesting to know what original French phrase was translated as such. Hughes went on to use the phrase again in Simple Takes a Wife, 1953—the next reference I can find in print.


Safire wrote another column on the phrase in 1997 which drops the mention of rugby altogether. He concludes "a black-English origin for the phrase is pretty likely" and cites a 1954 example, four years earlier than OED's earliest reference (1958). He also dug up this more plausible origin of the phrase:

Other evidence there of the phrase's black origin is a recollection from Norman Pierce of Jack's Record Cellar in San Francisco of Shove Day, or Bump Day, the traditional Thursday off for domestic servants in the 1920's, ''on which blacks 'accidentally' jostled whites in public places, railways, streetcars, etc.''

Edit #2:

I just found another antedating of the phrase. These are from Black Thunder by Arna Wendell Bontemps (close friend of Langston Hughes), 1936:

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You should send these antedatings to and the OED. –  Hugo Apr 21 '12 at 7:38
@Hugo: Just sent it to Etymonline. I'll do the same for OED, but can you tell me what they have for earliest occurrence? I don't have easy access. –  Callithumpian Apr 23 '12 at 2:42
I don't have OED access either, but your answer edit cites a 1958 citation. –  Hugo Apr 23 '12 at 6:13
So it does. I got that from Safire's 1997 article. Maybe someone here could confirm that that is still OED's earliest reference. I'd like to know before going through the OED submission process. –  Callithumpian Apr 23 '12 at 15:05
A few years later: the earliest OED reference for the exact phrase is from a 1898 newspaper in Georgia: “When ‘push comes to shove’ will editors of the Yellow Kid organs enlist?”. Earliest reference at all is from 1873 in United Methodist Free Churches’ Mag.: “The proposed improvement is about to fail, when Push comes up behind it and gives it a shove, and Pull goes in front and lays into the traces; and, lo! the enterprise advances, the goal is reached!”. –  Janus Bahs Jacquet Jan 31 at 16:08 also cites the rugby reference. It also notes the other meaning of the phrase as in "They supposedly support equality, but when push comes to shove they always seem to promote a man instead of a woman". I think the difference is "if" vs. "when". I see think the "when" meaning is more prevalent. It means "when actually tested".

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Searching this corpus yielded 87 "when..." vs. 17 "if..." –  David W Jan 11 '11 at 2:08

Push is just a push, and things have escalated to a shove now. It now means business. Escalate to get the thing accomplished.

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Yes, a shove is a much more intense push, sometimes using up all your remaining energy; so that would seem the right metaphor for "as a last resort". –  njd Jun 17 '11 at 9:42

Well my understanding of the phrase has always been this:

Pushing and shoving is a way of referring to fighting, particular little man-to-man arguments. They start with a push and a shove, so when "push comes to shove", it means a fight will break out. Fighting is the last resort, or at least the least desired outcome of an argument.

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In one of the Discworld books, Terry Pratchett alludes to the origin of this word as being midwifery (I think it's Nanny Ogg who has the relevant line).

I imagine he just made this up though...

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interesting - we should chech it out –  Kris Apr 21 '12 at 8:41

The earliest instance of the idiom I found is from Central Valley project of California: Hearings. United States. Congress. House. Committee on Flood Control February 7-9, 1935: page 52

enter image description here

It's my guess that the idiom is derived from the fixed expression push and shove, which Wikipedia calls Siamese twins or binomials. The order of the words are never reversed and they are usually conjoined by the words and or or.

The words constituting a Siamese twins phrase may be synonyms, antonyms, include alliterations or similar-sounding words that often rhyme.

The combination: push and shove is firmly rooted in the 19th century (earlier instances I did not find in Google Books) and clearly expresses a frustrated type of struggle, where people or animals have to fight each other in order to reach their objective. As seen in the following excerpts:

Young Men's Christian Association, 1903 enter image description here

The Nursery by Fanny P. Searverns 1867 The Donkey and The Pigs

The London Review and Weekly Journal of Politics, Literature, Art... 1860

For the rest of us, we push and shove ourselves into the best places, after the manner of Englishmen, that is, to our mutual discomfort, and without the least necessity ; and then we look round, and compose ourselves, to the due enjoyment of the imposing spectacle.

Missionary Chronicle Presbyterian Church in the U.S.A. Board of Foreign Missions, ‎Presbyterian Church in the U.S.A. 1844

Some go about begging and push and shove one another, [each greedy to get first]. Others go about begging unthreshed rice of the donor. They strive for food, transgressing the rules of propriety. They do not properly demean themselves.

From push and shove to "when push comes to shove" the path seems to me fairly straightforward. After all what is a shove if not a more decisive and aggressive type of push? A shove represents a surge of energy, the last resort, the final action when no alternative option is available.

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I suspect it might have its origins in the 16th and early 17th century English, during the English Civil War. The phrase that comes to mimd is a description of what happens when opposing pike blocks engaged in melee. It was described as push of pike and musket butt.

That phrase would have percolated through the population easily since the civilian population was intimately associated with the armies. It could easily morph into push comes to shove as that rolls off the tongue so easily and aptly describes the soldiesr in the pike blocks doing exactly that.

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Interesting theory. Do you have any references to support it? –  Hugo Apr 21 '12 at 7:40

protected by Jasper Loy Apr 21 '12 at 11:09

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