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I haven’t any idea of whence the phrase come on could have originated. There seems to be little purely denotative sense that can be made of the phrase. What were the circumstances under which it was first coined, and what is the back-story to this interesting phrase (which I’m sure has some involved history)?

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  • I find the most interesting use of this phrase to be in relation to sport, motivation, or both. Whether used towards oneself or someone else, it seems as if the intention or feeling behind the term is twofold: both one of celebration and motivation. When a football team scores a goal or even concludes an effective passage of play; when a tennis player wins a particularly good or important point; at the start of a match or game or part of a game when the crowd wish to spur their team or player on to success. I think what is also so fascinating about the phrase is that it could possibly be the o
    – user47302
    Jul 5, 2013 at 19:50
  • Ah! Such am I the girl that I thought the question was referring to ‘come on’ as the description for when a guy is intensely interested in a girl and attempts to ‘come on’ to her, or conversely when a girl gives a guy the ‘come on’ in the manner of flirting or indicating her willingness to continue with his approach.
    – Cass Lopez
    Jun 27, 2021 at 4:31

4 Answers 4

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This appears to be merely the latest in a long chain of expressions with both come and go. OED 1 finds, s.v. Come,

"33.b. As a call or appeal to a person to bethink himself, implying impatience, remonstrance, or, more usually, mild protest or deprecation on the speaker's part. Often emphasized by repetition, or by the addition of such words as now, then, but."

—to which we may in the 20th century add on. The earliest citation is dated 1340. Go, go up, go on have similar uses.

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  • 'Wait on' (= wait, tarry) is used by Australian batsmen, while barmen were also once said to 'wait on' [no object]. Jun 26, 2021 at 16:47
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Coverage of 'come on' in idiom dictionaries

Christine Ammer, The American Heritage Dictionary of Idioms, second edition (2013) has this entry for "come on":

come on 1. Move forward, progress, develop. For example, We stopped as soon as darkness came on. {Early 1600s} 2. Hurry up, as in Come on now, it's getting late. This imperative to urge someone forward has been used since about 1450. 3. Also, come upon. Meet or find unexpectedly, as in We came on him while walking down the street, or I came upon an old friend in the bookstore today. {Second half of the 1700s} 4. Make a stage entrance, as in After the next cue she comes on from the right. {Early 1800s} 5. Please oblige me, as in Come on, that's no excuse foe leaving, or Come on you'll really like this restaurant. {Colloquial; first half of 1900s} 6. Convey a specific personal image, as in He comes on like a go-getter, but he's really rather timid. 7. Also, come on strong. Behave or speak in an aggressive way, as in Take it easy; you're coming on awfully strong. {c. 1940} 8. Also, come on to. Make sexual advances, as in She reported her boss for coming on to her. This usage probably was derived from the earlier use of the noun come-on for a sexual advance. {Slang; 1950s}

Absent from this array of meanings is anything that explicitly conveys the sense of sharp objection—in effect, "stop what you are saying or doing!" The closest Ammer's options come to this is some combination of definition 2 ("Hurry up") and definition 5 "Please oblige me"). But I think the sense of "Come on!" as an imperative can be quite distinct from those two meanings.

Cambridge Dictionary of American Idioms (2003) offers yet another idiomatic meaning of the expression:

come on esp. spoken tell the truth | Oh, come on – you have no idea who stole your credit cards.

This is much closer to the meaning noted above that Ammer omits—but unfortunately, Cambridge doesn't provide an origin date for this sense of the expression. As a way of expressing impatience or dismissiveness, it is quite similar to the phrase "come off it," which Ammer does cover:

come off it Stop acting or speaking foolishly or pretentiously, as in Oh come off it! you're no smarter than they are. This term, often used as an imperative, dates from the late 1800s, when it was usually put simply as come off.

Evidently, come on in this sense is primarily a U.S. idiom. In any event, I don't find any mention of it in any dictionaries of British English idioms.


Early examples of 'come on' as an imperative

As for its origin, I suspect that "come on!" in the sense of "stop it!" arose from earlier use of "come on!" as a challenge to literally come forward to engage in a physical fight, which may itself be an offshoot of "come on" in the sense of "come along (with us)." Instances of "come on!" as an imperative way of urging someone to fight go back quite far in U.S. sources. For example, from "Attack on Rice's Fort," in the [Lawrenceburg] Indiana Palladium (April 8, 1825):

In the intervals of the firing, the Indians frequently called out to the people of the fort, "Give up, give up, too many Indian, Indian too big—no kill." They were answered with defiance "Come on, you cowards ; we are ready for you. Show us your yellow hides and we will make holes in them for you."

From "Gen Picton," in the [Alexandria, Virginia] Phenix Gazette (June 6, 1827):

Picton, drawing himself up and putting his arms a-kimbo, then said, 'You may tell Lord Wellington from me, Sir, that the third division under my command, shall in less than ten minutes attack the bridge and carry it, and the fourth and sixth divisions may support, if they choose!' Upon this the gallant general mounted his horse, and putting himself at the head of his troops, waved his hat and led them on to the charge, with the bland compellations of 'Come on, you rascals! come on ye fighting villains!' The bridge carried in a few minutes.

And from "Coxes' Adventures on the Columbia River," in the [Springfield, Illinois] Sangamo Journal (June 7, 1832):

One day as we were sitting down to dinner, one of our men, followed by a native, rushed into the dining-room, and requested we would instantly repair to the village to prevent bloodshed, as Mr. M'Donald was about to fight a duel with one of the chiefs. We ran to the scene of action, and I found our friend surrounded by a number of Indians all of whom kept at a respectful distance. He had his fowling-piece, which he changed from one hand to the other, and appeared violently chafed. The chief stood about twenty yards from him, and the following colloquy took place between them, which for the information of my unlearned readers I shall translate.

M'D.—"Come on, now, you rascal! you toad! you dog! Will you fight?

Indian.—I will:—but you're are a foolish man. A chief should not be passionate. I always thought the white chiefs were wise men.

An example of "come on" used figuratively in the sense of "stop it" appears in "A Chicago Romance," in the Wheeling [West Virginia] Daily Intelligencer (September 27, 1897):

"Th blow nearly killed father," went on the the girl in the yellow cheese-cloth [Marie]. "I mean the blow of the [traveling performance] company's busting. There we was, sixty miles form a glass of beer, in central Iowa, and strapped till we didn't know the look of money. Even the change of the seasons would have been welcome. But the worst with my friend here"—and she pointed once more to the genial neck-stretcher [Annabel Lee, a contortionist]—"was her infatuation for the living skeleton."

"Oh, come on, now, Marie, and shut your face," cried Annabel Lee, in her most sprightly fashion.

And similarly, from "Professor Caruthers' Thanksgiving Turkey," in the [Bloomington, Illinois] Weekly Pantagraph (November 29, 1901):

"Le's see," began Jeff, reflectively, staring up at the leaves while he counted on his fingers. "Accordin' to the old man we are thankful for manifold mercies and blessings; for being preserved through the trials and vicissitudes of another year; for health an' clothes an' food—he calls food—an'—

"Oh, come on now," Interrupted Oran. "This is no prayer meetin'. Say, what have we got to be thankful for? Nothin’—not a doggone thing, you know we haven't. Just what Sally an' me 've been workin' on. We believe 'at when Thanksgiving comes a man ought to be thankful, an' if he hasn’t got anything to be thankful for, he ought to get out right quick and do somp'n to make him so. See here, then, here's the scheme."

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My reading is that when you say "come on" you are urging someone or something to finish acting absurdly and start being sensible. So "come on!" in the sense of an exclamation is from the literal sense of "come on" as "move forward!".

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    Please add facts, references, or specific expertise which verify your answer.
    – MetaEd
    Sep 3, 2012 at 18:57
-4

It's another way to say "Turn on," but in a more personal and direct sense, implying one requires mental state adjustment.

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    I don't believe this is the case at all. "Turn on" does not mean the same as "come on!". May 31, 2013 at 8:51

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