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I read an answer on another site which referred to the idiom of falling off the wagon as being "chiefly American". That got me curious since I would have thought that this particular idiom is shared by both sides of the pond. I tried an NGram of fall off vs drive the wagon, and could find hits on both their BrE and their AmE corpus, but of course that isn't really conclusive as there's no way to compare. There is a hint though as I noticed that there is a clear hike in usage in BrE in the past few years (after 2000), so that could indicate that it used to be less common in BrE.

This makes sense since the idiom itself is attested from 1904, but it apparently arose in the US during prohibition, so it likely was indeed more common in the US at the turn of the century. Is that still the case today? Can we still say this is "chiefly" an AmE expression or is it now simply an English language one understood and used in both AmE and BrE (and others, presumably) equally?

Updating here to incorporate my comment below:

I am not distinguishing between [to be] on the wagon and falling off the wagon, I'm asking if the general idiom of the wagon meaning abstaining from alcohol, be one on it or off it, is more common on either side of the pond today.

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    It's true the usage [to be] "on the wagon" = "forsworn from alcohol" was originally AmE, but there's not much difference today between the usage rate per million written words for AmE and BrE. Certainly the difference isn't great enough to justify calling the usage "chiefly American" today. Falling off the wagon is just a trivial extrapolation. Feb 20, 2022 at 11:29
  • @FumbleFingers oh, yes, I am not distinguishing between [to be] on the wagon and falling off the wagon, I'm asking if the general idiom of the wagon meaning abstaining from alcohol, be one on it or off it, is more common on either side of the pond today.
    – terdon
    Feb 20, 2022 at 11:40
  • There's a limit to what you can do with NGrams, but the exact sequence fallen off the wagon (which has massively gained traction over recent decades) is actually slightly more common per million words in the Google Books BrE corpus. And almost certainly the percentage of "false positives" for that search string (contexts involving actual wagons, rather than metaphoric teetotal ones) would be higher in the AmE corpus, so it's well within the bounds of possibility that in reality we Brits have pretty much taken over "your" usage (as I recall, you're AmE). Feb 20, 2022 at 12:12
  • Eh, I'm squarely in the middle, which is why I cannot really opine on things like this. I grew up speaking AmE (but not living in the US) and have spent around 10 years living in the UK, so I'm all over the place.
    – terdon
    Feb 20, 2022 at 12:14
  • Let us continue this discussion in chat. Feb 20, 2022 at 13:47

1 Answer 1

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To minimize false positives (such as things literally falling off a wagon), I used the term go on the wagon, which will usually have alcohol involved. (I included go, goes, going, gone, and went.)

Here are results from the Corpus of Contemporary American English and the British National Corpus, which each cover roughly 1990–2019:

Corpus of Contemporary American English:

GO on the wagon (15 results, 2 of which are from books)

British National Corpus:

GO on the wagon (3 results, all of which are from books)

In this Google Ngram, I overlaid the American corpus results with the British ones for go on the wagon 1930–2019:

A Google Ngram

What to conclude? Chiefly an American English expression might be a bit of an overstatement, though it doesn’t seem have a lot of traction in the British world at large.

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  • I'm confused. This seems not to answer the question at all. Did you suppose that "go on the wagon" is what the OP was actually asking about, or was the opposite of what he actually did ask about just easier for you to research?
    – Robusto
    Feb 21, 2022 at 0:38
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    @Robusto: OP clarified in a comment under the question: "I am not distinguishing between [to be] on the wagon and falling off the wagon, I'm asking if the general idiom of the wagon meaning abstaining from alcohol, be one on it or off it, is more common on either side of the pond today." It is certainly easier to research go on the wagon, for the reason I mentioned. Feb 21, 2022 at 0:44
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    It might be relevant to mention that the British National Corpus is about one tenth the size of the Corpus of Contemporary American English - 100+ million for the BNC vs 1.1 Billion for COCA. Also, as far as I'm aware, the lastest version of the BNC was released in 2007.
    – DW256
    Feb 21, 2022 at 1:04
  • Worth mentioning, but a factor of 10 in 100 million is statistically insignificant for extrapolation.
    – Greybeard
    Feb 21, 2022 at 12:57

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