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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

7 Answers 7

up vote 1 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:

http://books.google.com/books?id=jRFDEQGhMLEC&printsec=frontcover&dq=editions:jRFDEQGhMLEC#v=snippet&q=%22when%20push%20comes%20to%20shove%22&f=false

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.

Edit:

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:

http://books.google.com/books?id=z3wGAQAAIAAJ&q=%22push+come+to+shove%22&dq=%22push+come+to+shove%22&hl=en&ei=LEX7TdvDO7Oz0AGUhdGlAw&sa=X&oi=book_result&ct=result&resnum=1&ved=0CDIQ6AEwAA

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You should send these antedatings to etymonline.com and the OED. –  Hugo Apr 21 '12 at 7:38
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@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

Answers.com 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..." corpus.byu.edu/coca/?c=coca&q=8201178 –  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

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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