I noticed this headline after talks on Brexit were stalled by whatever they were stalled by.

Stalled talks kick the border issue down the road

Ngram A // Ngram B

I tried Ngramming but, frustratingly, I am only allowed five words so am left uncertain whether my two four-word attempts mean much. There is a tantalising blip around 1948 and I am wondering if Los Alamos and the Manhattan Project have anything to do with can kicking.

But what most intrigued me was that I was expected to know what can kicking was all about. The headline does not use a simile; it doesn't mention a can at all. The headline kicks 'the border issue' down the road.

And more intriguingly the stalled talks do the kicking. Becoming passive, the effect is to kick the issue.

It is a mixed metaphor, at least.

When did the saying start ? Post 1945 ? A-bomb ? H-bomb ?

When did the saying lose the can ?

When did the saying start kicking things all by itself ?

And when did it become possible to do nothing, and kick, all at once ?

  • Do you have a reference for "lose the can"? I've not encountered that. Dec 5, 2017 at 8:50
  • @MaxWilliams I think Nigel means that we stopped kicking cans down the road and started kicking other things. My problem with the whole premise of the question is that I perfectly understand the headline whilst never having been familiar with the idiom of kicking cans down roads. Nigel, I think there is a chance you may be assuming UK familiarity with a US(?) phrase that is unwarranted.
    – Spagirl
    Dec 5, 2017 at 11:01

2 Answers 2


Kicking the can down the road refers to postpone solving a problem or dealing with an issue.

The earliest instance I have found (using Google Ngram) is from 1980--although it seems not yet to be an idiomatic phrase, as it refers to "street" instead of "road."

1980 Middle East Policy Survey: MEP Survey, Issues 1-142

"The study just delays the inevitable," said one State Department official. "We will not know anything then that we don't know now. It's just kicking the can down the street."

The MEP is apparently a periodical.

The phrase becomes more common in the 1980s, usually with respect to arms control issues, as in this reference--also from a periodical:

1987 - ‎ Arms Control Today: A Publication of the Arms Control Association, Volumes 17-18

... summarized the situation on this issue by observing that the negotiators had simply "kicked the can down the road."

It's originally and primarily American English; my Ngram search turned up no uses in British English, although the ITS (British commercial television) headline you quote suggests familiarity with it.

My Ngram search term is kick_INF the can down, which searches for all forms of kick--kick, kicks, kicking, kicked. kick the can

I think "losing the can," as you put it, is a little catchy and assumes the listener understands that one can now substitute "the issue" (whatever it is) for "the can." Thus the headline from ITV to which you linK:

4 December 2017 at 5:54pm 

Stalled Brexit talks kick the Irish border issue down the road

  • There's an idiom "carry the can" (possibly just in BrEng) which means "to take responsibility". dictionary.cambridge.org/dictionary/english/carry-the-can Since "kicking the can down the road" seems to mean "removing the responsibility from oneself and leaving it to someone else to pick up later", the two phrases may be related. Dec 5, 2017 at 8:49
  • @MaxWilliams It sounds like that could be the origin. I was puzzled that "kick the can down . . ." did not turn up earlier than 1980.
    – Xanne
    Dec 5, 2017 at 9:02
  • @MaxWilliams If you want to do "carry the can" as an answer (it would complement what I found, I think) please do. There are NGram hits and some false positives, but I didn't pursue it enough to be able to say anything about it.
    – Xanne
    Dec 5, 2017 at 9:11

I'm quite certain that the expression has been around since I was a child in the Eisenhower administration.

It refers to a child, walking along a road, who keeps kicking an empty can along in front of him. This is a useless effort, of course (he could much more easily carry the can, or simply throw it away), but it keeps him occupied.

Of course, any more the child would simply play games on his smart phone. And no one walks any distance either.

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