On the road or the wagon?

Nov 6, 2012 | Language

I had a great plan for the blog today. Having spent a bit of time in Bodmin Jail last week (as a visitor, not an inmate!), I had some lovely jail-based phrases to etymologise (might’ve made that word up…).

So, I was led to believe that the phrases one more for the road and on the wagon both came from the long journey from prison to hangman’s noose. It has often been claimed that one more for the road came from the habit of the local Inns offering prisoners a final drink on their way to the gallows. Similarly, if the prisoner refused or were refused this final drink, they remained on the wagon. Unfortunately, this appears to be bunkum*. It seems we were just not that nice to the condemned, much preferring to jeer and leer than refresh.

One for the road seems to be just a well-used plea to keep your friends together for a little while longer – don’t go yet, have another one for the road!

On the wagon, however, has a more contested origin. Apart from the whole ‘off to get hanged’ explanation, another is that the wagon was a hay wagon driven around the mean streets of New York by Evangeline Booth (US Salvation Army National Commander) to pick up waifs and strays and take them back to the Army hostel. However, the phrase is mostly suggested to have derived from the temperance movement in 19th century America – the wagon being a water wagon used to damp down dust roads – suggesting those taking the pledge would rather drink from this rather unsanitary vessel than take a mouthful of the demon drink.

* bunkum (according to www.etymonline.com): “nonsense,” 1900, short for bunkum, phonetic spelling of Buncombe, a county in North Carolina. The usual story of its origin is that at the close of the protracted Missouri statehood debates, on Feb. 25, 1820, N.C. Representative Felix Walker began what promised to be a “long, dull, irrelevant speech,” and he resisted calls to cut it short by saying he was bound to say something that could appear in the newspapers in the home district and prove he was on the job. “I shall not be speaking to the House,” he confessed, “but to Buncombe.” Bunkum has been Amer.Eng. slang for “nonsense” since 1847.

image: © Colin Stitt | Dreamstime.com