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We used to use this expression in upstate New York during the 1970s..as in

jag (noun)

a bout of drinking or drug taking

Vocabulary.com

To "be on a jag" or "go on a jag" means to be completely unrestrained, whether you're on a drinking jag or a crying jag. This second meaning is of U.S. origin, first meaning "a load of hay or wood," and later "as much drink as a man can hold," in the 17th century.

Recently, I heard it used in an extended meaning indicating mostly any kind of rant.

What is the actual origin of the phrase?

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3 Answers 3

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According to Green’s Dictionary of Slang, the origin is from rural slang related to train cargo. The figurative usage is from the late 19th century.

Jag:

dial. jag, as much liquor as one can hold, a ‘load’. Note S.F. Alta 4 Aug. 1889 [title] What a Jag Is: ‘An inquirer asks us the meaning of ‘Jag’ applied to inebriety. It is a new slang. In the rural districts the cargo of a wagon that is hauling wood, when [holding] all that the wagon can carry, is called a ‘load.’ When it is less than up to the full capacity it is called a ‘Jag.’ Therefore when a man is less than dead drunk he has not a load on but merely a Jag’

in figurative uses

(a) (US) a period of indulgence, a fit, a spree of any kind.

  • 1891 [US] W. De Vere ‘Jim Marshall’s New Pianner’ Tramp Poems 8: We turned out to celebrate its advent, with a jag on.

………

  • 1986 [US] S. King It (1987) 862: During a rainy spell [...] the seven of them would go on a mad Parcheesi jag.
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  • I often groan and wonder who curates the sample usage, but a rainy spell mad parcheesi jag is priceless.
    – Phil Sweet
    May 13 at 21:15
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There looks to be two different sayings around the turn of the 20th century. To be on a jag or go on a jag meant an uncomfortable situation, perhaps related to jag meaning a sharp point. To have taken on a jag meant having gotten drunk.

Annual Report of the Pennsylvania Department of Agriculture, Volume 12, Part 1906

Now, what are the essentials to successful peach growing? It strikes me after a life's work in the cultivation of the peach, studying the conditions of my fellow man, together with the market conditions, and all other things that would help to stimulate peach growing, I have come to the conclusion that the best foundation for success, lies in the man or woman who has taken up the job. I find men and women succeeding in many localities, and their neighbors falling by the wayside, although the conditions are the same with both. I find that everywhere: so it seems to me, the first thing is the man. Life is pretty short and pretty sweet to most of us and I think most of us ought to be doing something we like all the time. I don t mean to be on a jag all the time. I don't believe we should get up every morning, and go out to something that is our life work, that is distasteful to us. I believe there is something ...


Bradford Era Newspaper Archives, Feb 28, 1896, p. 2

It would seem that the Kunnel has taken on a jag of dutch courage and the effect of it is reflected in his alleged newspaper.

The New York Times 1903-08-24: Vol 52 Iss 16734

Page n5 The rude police diagnosis of the case that the cat had “taken on a jag” of rabies, having very likely been bitten by some yellow dog of a region abounding in such, is probably the correct one, the habitually innocent and friendly pussy being in no wise immune from that dangerous disorder, A more careful ...

Lulu Hurst (The Georgia Wonder) Writes Her Autobiography. Lulu was a psychic. The book was published in 1897.

It was a habit with me in making these tests to often pass one of my hands through my bangs (for these adornments were worn then), and many people thought this had something to do with my power. So, as I stood facing the stalwart Japanese, waiting for the on-coming of the Power, I passed my hands through my bangs, and this was no sooner done than that almond-eyed son of the east began to quiver and stagger, as though he had suddenly taken on a jag. I never will forget the strange, weird, superstitious look he gave me when he first felt the premonitory palsy that accompanies the approach of “The Great Unknown.”

I looked at multiple examples of each, and the idioms were consistent during this time frame.

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A possible origin of this is the Plough Jags or Plough Plays of Lincolnshire. It is thought that the word "Jags" is a corruption of "Jacks" but the term "Plough Jags" certainly predates the references given above.

The plough plays appear to be very ancient in origin and similar plays are found in many parts of Europe but in 19C England the Jags were certainly associated with copious drinking and various types of anti-social behaviour. I suggest that the term "Jag" could have crossed the Atlantic with the associated meaning of a "bender".

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