Mind your language

Getting on – and falling off – the wagon

3 November 2018

9:00 AM

3 November 2018

9:00 AM

Radio 3 tries to distract listeners from music by posing little quizzes and hearing quirky details of history from a ‘time traveller’. Last Wednesday we were assured that on the wagon, meaning ‘abstaining from alcohol’, derived somehow from condemned prisoners being taken from Newgate to Tyburn and having a last drink at St Giles’s.

This is definitely not the origin of the phrase. That reliable philologist Michael Quinion gave the true version in his blog World Wide Words in 1998.

The journey to Tyburn was a staple of popular miscellanies such as Hone’s Year Book and Chambers Book of Days, and earlier of fictionalised histories like Jonathan Wild (1725) and The Beggar’s Opera (1728). Those convicted of treason were dragged to the gallows on a hurdle. Ordinary murderers went in an open cart. Accounts do not call it a wagon.


In James Shirley’s play The Wedding (1629), the miser Rawbone imagines his own journey: ‘Now I’m in the cart, riding up Holborn… now I feel my toes hang i’ the cart; now ’tis drawn away; now, now, now!— I’m gone!’

Swift’s poem on ‘Clever Tom Clinch’, hanged in 1727, says that ‘He stopped at the George for a bottle of sack,’ with the traditional joke, ‘And promised to pay for it—when he came back.’ He rode on a cart: ‘And when his last speech the loud hawkers did cry / He swore from his cart “It was all a damned lie”.’

Earl Ferrers, hanged in 1760 for murder, aspired to something better than the Tyburn cart, using his influence to ride in his own landau with six horses. But the clergyman William Dodd, convicted of forging a signature in 1777, shared an open cart with another felon.

So forget wagons to Tyburn. In any case, hanging at Tyburn ended in 1783, and the earliest citation of on the wagon is from 1906. A little earlier, in 1889, in the United Service magazine, is the exchange: ‘ “Let me give you a dose of rum.” “No, thanks,” was the reply; “I’m on the water-wagon.” ’

The metaphor is to be on the water wagon for abstinence; falling off the wagon for indulgence. My husband has never scrambled onto the wagon yet.

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