MUNDANE MYSTERIES: How/Why We “Fall Off The Wagon”

Certain phrases don’t really need an explanation. If someone says you’re “playing with fire,” then you’re probably doing something reckless that could earn you some rough consequences. “Dropping your guard”? That’s lowering your defenses.

But, what does “falling off the wagon” have to do with excessive alcohol consumption? Is it about losing your balance when you’re inebriated? Maybe early Americans tumbled off their wagons when they’d had too much liquor?

Well, it actually doesn’t have much to do with any actual spills. The phrase “on the wagon”, which led to “off the wagon”, originated around the turn of the 20th century. It was actually originally “on the water cart”.

Way before Prohibition, a grassroots movement developed in order to mitigate the supposed evils of alcohol. Groups like the Anti-Saloon League came into being & attempted to persuade their members to pledge eternal sobriety, develop better character, and generally set a good example for others.

Around that same time, cities were commonly utilizing water wagons, which were large horse-pulled tanks of water that were full of undrinkable H20 used to dampen dusty streets. Those tanks were so prevalent that they became a sort of reference point for anyone discussing their personal commitment to sobriety. People might say that they’d sooner drink from the water wagon than drink alcohol. That soon evolved into proclaiming that a person was “on the water wagon.”

After someone jumped onto the proverbial water wagon, what frequently followed was a lapse in devotion, and they would fall “off” the water wagon. As water wagons began disappearing from public use, the phrase shortened to just “wagon.” And, whether a person was on or off that wagon equated to their present approach to drinking.

But, I guess if you think about it, though, under the right circumstances, it’s entirely possible to “fall off the wagon” both metaphorically & literally. All you’d need would be a wagon & way too much booze. (But I wouldn’t recommend it!)

Got a Mundane Mystery you’d like solved? Send me a message via social media (@AndyWebbRadioVoice), or shoot me an email at [email protected].

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