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The ODO defines the expression "down the road" as North American and informal, meaning:

  • In the future; they couldn't predict the disastrous war looming a few years down the road

According to The Dictionary of American Slang, its usage is from the '60s.

Looking for its possible origin, I found that "down the road" is also used in the idiomatic expression "kick the can down the road", but its usage appears to be later, from the '80s, according to The Grammarphobia which unluckily doesn't give details about the second part of the expression.

Questions:

  • how did "down the road" come to mean "in the future"? Has the expression something to do with beat generation books like Kerouac "On the road" for instance?

  • can anyone trace its earliest idiomatic usages?

P.S. Just for clarity, my question is on the figurative usage of "down the road", not its literal one. It is obvious that it is a metaphor used to refer to future times, and its literal usage is just an ordinary expression with no specific origin. Hope this clarify possible doubts about the question. (2nd attempt).

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    OED has its earliest citation from Lady Bird Johnson (Pres Lyndon B Johnson's wife) who used the phrase in her White House Diary in 1964 (published 1970). – Andrew Leach Sep 11 '17 at 12:22
  • I've always felt that Robert Frost's poem The Road Not Taken (published in 1916) was related to this figurative usage... but maybe I'm reading too much into it. – Ghotir Sep 11 '17 at 14:25
  • @Ghotir it's certainly using the wider figurative use of road and path for course of action or experience, which my answer argues "down the road" is an extension of. Though its ironic self-mocking in having the narrator suggest he would boast "I took the one less traveled by" when they were in fact equally untrodden (which then is truly the road not taken?) could be taken so far as to question the value of the metaphor entirely. – Jon Hanna Sep 11 '17 at 15:03
  • Not really relevant but for information in British English 'down the road' and often 'just down the road' has meant 'nearby' in an urban context. – Julian Sep 11 '17 at 18:00
  • There seems to be a carny connection. Down the road was a euphemism avoiding the unlucky (to carnies) 'goodbye'. Can't find any dates, but it's a pretty short hop from there to a fully figurative use. Anyone have any carny slang dictionaries from the '60s? – Phil Sweet Sep 11 '17 at 18:30
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The expression "down the road", meaning in the future, is older than what the dictionaries are saying.

See for example the early 1945 testimony before the Committee on Banking and Currency of United States Senate concerning Extending the Emergency Price Control and Stabilization Acts of 1942:

I do not think it is possible to say we are going to sit down here now and work out a program that is going to fit all the changing conditions that are going to happen down the road.

And in two journals, the Machinists' Monthly Journal and the Locomotive Engineers Journal (both from the 1920s according to google) is a poem titled "Just Down the Road":

June's just down the road a ways!
May has been like other Mays,
With a little rain left over,
April rain to raise the clover;
May has had a little storm,
But the days are getting warm.
And the mornings getting brighter,
And the heart a little lighter-
Yes, you know by better days
June's just down the road a ways.

June's just down the road a bit.
Isn't that the way with it,
Always even in our sorrow?
What today but has tomorrow?
Even winter has the spring ;
There's a hope in ev'rything.
March will bluster, April follows,
First the robins, then the swallows.
And, if May should not be fit,
June's Just down the road a bit.

June's just down the road a ways
Just remember all your days
June will come, I know it, feel it.
Time brings hurt, and time to heal it;
April comes and brings the rain,
But it greener leaves the grain;
May, more kind than man supposes
Takes the violets, leaves the roses;
And, whatever cares are May's,
June's just down the road a ways!

-Douglas Malloch

Also, there is the poem Billy and I by J. S. Culter, published in many newspapers and journals, for example the 03 June 1904 Indianapolis News, where the 5th verse is:

Well, Billy, we're both great sinners, for we've both grown old, you know;
And we've only a little further adown the road to go;
So we'll fare along together until the Master called us home;
To the happy Home-Land stables, and our feet forget to roam

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Road has long been used figuratively to refer to a course of action:

You know the very rode into his kindnesse, And cannot lose your way. — Shakespeare, Coriolanus, a1616.

And extending that, for something experienced:

I don't think it is fair to haul me up and down that road again — Journal Legislative Assembly Province Ontario, 1903

Path for such uses has even earlier attestations

Gedo me þine wegas cuðe, and lær me þine paðas – King Ælfred tr. Psalms c 880.

It follows from such a figurative use, that what has not yet happened is down the road, just as physically what is on a road but not yet encountered is.

Lady Bird Johnson's White House Diary used it in 1964, which is the earliest the OED records for the expression, but as shown, the general figurative use is much older; as old as English if we consider the figurative use of path as part of the same thing.

  • And, I imagine, much older than English. A journey for a life and a path for a passage of time has to be one of the universal and foundational human metaphors. – Dan Bron Sep 11 '17 at 15:01
  • @DanBron indeed, the Latin Vulgate has Via, "I am the way", and the Greek something similar, which is a related metaphor, that so heavily influenced English that "means of accomplishing something" is a non-figurative sense of way though originally the Old English weġ was in the sense of a path or route, with the "method or means" sense being a figurative use. – Jon Hanna Sep 11 '17 at 15:15
  • Interesting and helpful answer. As I said in a note, the metaphor is clear, and road in a figurative sense may date back to past centuries. What strikes me is that the same common metaphor is not present in other languages, at least in French, Spanish and Italian we don't have an established "down the road" expression as far as I know. So my impression is that road, as a synonym of future, found its way into the English language through other proverbs or literature for instance and despite the old references, that happened more or less in the '60s. – user66974 Sep 11 '17 at 15:21
  • Could it have been coined by Lady Bird Johnson? Don't know, don't think so. – user66974 Sep 11 '17 at 15:23
  • Another aspect is the use of the term "road". Why not down the river or up in the sky. They might all convey a sense of future as road does. I think there is a very AmE aspect to this saying. – user66974 Sep 11 '17 at 15:26
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+100

There seem to be two parts, or "stages," to the answer here.

  1. When and why was "down the road" used to refer to the future in a figurative way?

  2. When and why did this expression become idiomatic in English, recognizable and commonly used in colloquial speech and processed as an idiom.

The difference between the two is that in stage 2, the phrase is a feature of the language, specific to English, whereas figurative uses of the sort in stage 1 are more like instances of what Stephen Pinker and other linguists call the "time orientation metaphor," which is a feature of language generally, although the way in which it manifests can be different in different languages.

Figurative Language

Stephen Pinker discusses "time orientation metaphors" in The Stuff of Thought: Language as a Window into Human Nature.

In the TIME ORIENTATION metaphor, an observer is located at the present, with the past behind him and the future in front, as in That's all behind us, We're looking ahead, and She has a great future in front of her. Then a metaphorical motion can be added to the scene in one of two ways. In the MOVING TIME metaphor, time is a parade that sweeps past a stationary observer. The time will come when typewriters are obsolete; The time for action has arrived; The deadline is approaching; The summer is flying by. But we also find a MOVING OBSERVER metaphor, in which the landscape of time is stationary and the observer proceeds through it: There's trouble down the road; We're coming up on Christmas; She left at nine o'clock; We passed the deadline; We're halfway through the semester.

Pinker goes on to point out that in Chinese, vertical metaphors where the future is "down" and the past is "up" are common. In other languages, the future is considered to be "behind" the observer, while the past is "ahead."

In early uses of the time orientation metaphor "down the road," the figurative context leaves room for it to refer to the future or the past. In this example, "down the road of time" means that something has been relegated to the past.

We have done our best to keep track with the acts and doings of the General Assembly, and we are under obligations to Hon. R. S. DesChamps for furnishing us with daily copies of the Journal and Calendars, otherwise we should have been dependent upon the reports in the daily newspapers which are not always correct: the Journal is the official guide.

The session is over, it has passed down the road of time, never to return, but while this machine was in view, it made a whole lot of noise.

An even earlier use refers to a "road of time," though not in the phrase "down the road."

There are wells on the great road of time, the prospect and certainty of which encourage the traveller to surmount the difficulties of his journey

Idiomatic Use

Determining when the phrase was adopted widely enough in a figurative fashion to become idiomatic seems to me to be somewhat subjective and difficult to trace. I'm inclined to believe the dictionaries that attest its earliest print uses in the 1950s or '60s. From the OED:

It was a sad good-by for all of us. But one good thing, we know we'll always be seeing each other down the road.

  • 1964 Mrs. L. B. Johnson White House Diary 17 Nov. (1970) 204

Some earlier uses appear in the 1950s:

Some 50-odd years later down the road the executive mansion is manned by Harry S. Truman.

No drastic action is required on the problem as of now, McElroy said, but it must be considered later, "down the road."

That the phrase "down the road" is placed in quotation marks in the second example seems relevant to the evolution from a general figurative use to a more idiomatic use. The quotation marks indicate both that the writer felt the need to attribute the quote to the speaker, suggesting that its idiomatic frequency had yet to fully develop, and that the phrase was used idiomatically in speech, which one would expect to take place before its prevalence in print.

Mixing Time and Space

There are some interesting uses of the phrase that might be considered a sort of partial-figurative use. Consider this quote where the phrase "later down the road" refers to a person's literal position in both space and time. As a person drives down the road, they move forward on the road literally, and forward through time in the time orientation metaphor. One might usually say "Further down the road," but since it will take time to get further down the road, saying "later down the road" can be interpreted literally to mean "at a later time, when they were further down the road."

Fifteen miles later down the road, Haynes decided to wake up Tatum.

Considering how uses like this blend literal senses of time and space, it makes sense that the time orientation metaphor is such a common figurative aspect of language.

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