The following excerpt has been taken from The Time Machine by H. G. Wells:

‘One might get one’s Greek from the very lips of Homer and Plato,’ the Very Young Man thought.

‘In which case they would certainly plough you for the Little-go.  The German scholars have improved Greek so much.’
                    (You can read more here.)

What does “plough” mean here?

  • 3
    You saw the word "Little-go" but decided to ask about "plough"?
    – Dan Bron
    May 7, 2015 at 5:19
  • @Mari-LouA Yes, I did use a few dictionaries and Google. May 7, 2015 at 5:24
  • @DanBron'Little go' is a kind of examination in England. Am I right? May 7, 2015 at 5:26
  • Please share your research and explain why you are confused.
    – Mari-Lou A
    May 7, 2015 at 5:33

1 Answer 1


Because of certain humorous cultural stereotypes associated with the ancient Greeks and Very Young Men, it might be best that I dispel any inchoate notions forming in your head.

The Very Young Man muses on all the wonderful opportunities such a Time Machine could afford him. He could learn Classical Greek from Classic Greeks!

However, if he did that, The Time Traveller replies, his teachers would plough him for the Little-go.

In the UK, plough was once used as slang for "fail":

plough (TFD): 12. (Education) (intr) Brit to fail an examination

And the Little-go was an informal term for "Responsions"¹, one of the three tests all students of the University of Oxford once needed to pass to earn a degree. Per Wikipedia:

Responsions was the first of the three examinations once required for an academic degree at the University of Oxford.

It was nicknamed the Little Go and was generally taken by students prior to or shortly after matriculation, the idea being that without standardised qualifications from school examinations, the University had to verify for itself the quality of the students that colleges were accepting. The examination consisted of comparatively simple questions on Latin, Ancient Greek, and mathematics. It was abolished in 1960.

Of course, knowledge of Ancient Greek being a staple of a classic education at the time, the Little-go would test The Very Young Man's knowledge of it.

And, just as obviously, if he had learned Ancient Greek from actual Ancient Greeks, directly, he would have failed that test.

Because, of course, modern teachers don't know how actual Ancient Greek was spoken; they only know the reconstructed and speculative version the "German scholars have improved upon".

And if you don't believe me, maybe you'll believe The Schmoop:

You could study Ancient Greek in Ancient Greece so you could pass your tests! But since you'd be the only modern person who really knew Ancient Greek, your teachers would fail you. (That's what "plough you for the Little-go" means – it's not as dirty as it sounds.)

Now get your mind out of the gutter.

¹ Speculation: Little-go because the test was a go (attempt) at your degree: the first, easiest, littlest of the three.

  • 2
    Does the fact that I saw nothing in the least rude or bordering on risqué, say something about me? :)
    – Mari-Lou A
    May 7, 2015 at 6:08
  • @Mari-LouA Only that you are as sweet and innocent as I've always known you to be ;)
    – Dan Bron
    May 7, 2015 at 6:10
  • 2
    Might be worth a comment that plough meaning "give a deliberate fail mark" is antique and probably restricted to public school slang. +1 anyway :-)
    – Andrew Leach
    May 7, 2015 at 6:16
  • @AndrewLeach What I find weird is the TFD entry marks the verb intransitive. So are the teachers ploughing the student under (burying him), or is the student himself tripping up, ploughing the dirt with his face? Obviously Wells is indicating the former (transitive) here, but I'm trying to reconcile that with the four little letters, intr, which appear in the dictionary.
    – Dan Bron
    May 7, 2015 at 6:19
  • Let's remind ourselves that Wells was writing before the first world war. This is so dated that I had to look up both plough and little-go.
    – WS2
    May 7, 2015 at 6:35

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