Q&A: ‘Jumping on the bandwagon’ and ‘falling off the wagon’

Each week here at the Australian Writers’ Centre, we dissect and discuss, contort and retort, ask and gasp at the English language and all its rules, regulations and ridiculousness. It’s a celebration of language, masquerading as a passive-aggressive whinge about words and weirdness. This week, we have wagon tales..

Q: Hi AWC, it seems like everyone’s been jumping on the Barbie bandwagon lately!

A: Yes – it was a well-timed chat we had about Barbie and Ken a few weeks ago.

Q: So it was. But I have a question.

A: If it’s about feminism or the patriarchy, this is really the wrong blog for that…

Q: No silly – it’s about the word “bandwagon”! Why do we use it in this way?

A: Good question! Macquarie Dictionary defines climbing or jumping on the bandwagon as to join the winning side; take advantage of a popular movement or fashion; follow the crowd.”

Q: Sure. But there’s no band?

A: Fair enough. However, there WAS in the original “bandwagon” back in 1849. It first appeared in America – as the term for an actual wooden wagon that would be decorated and was used to transport musicians at the front of a parade. 

Q: Okay, and I don’t mean to ‘James Reyne on your parade’ here, but WHEN did people start jumping on them?

A: The late 1800s – and it was our teddy-bear namesake Teddy Roosevelt who first wrote about it in a political sense in 1899. In this context, it was all about attaching yourself to something (or a candidate) that looked likely to succeed. And this is the meaning that has largely persisted to this day.

Q: Now that we’ve set tongues a-wagon, just how old IS the word “wagon”?

A: It’s pretty old – first appearing in English back in the 1400s as a four-wheeled vehicle to carry loads. It had formed from the earlier word “wegh” – which is where other words like “way”, “convey” and even the country “Norway” also came from.

Q: Norway? No way!

A: Yep. It basically translates as “the way North”. 

Q: Beautiful country. I once did a road trip there in a Fjord Fjokus. It went oh-slow. 

A: That was terrible.

Q: Really? I was hoping that Finnish would help Sweden the deal…

A: Please stop.

Q: Sure. But I only say these things because IKEA…

A: Ugh. Well anyway, another word that meant the same thing as “wagon” and stuck around for a while was “wain”.

Q: Ooooh yeah, I used to have a friend Wayne who’d stick around too. “Party ended an hour ago, Wayne… Time to go Waaaayne.” He was SO annoying.

A: Right, okay. Well anyway, “wain” quite literally fell by the wayside in the 1800s, falling almost entirely out of use, except perhaps for old-fashioned “hay wains”.

Q: I don’t mean to wax lyrical, but it sounds like it waned. Haha.

A: Exactly. This left the way clear for wagons (or “waggons” as the British spelt them right up till the 19th century) to go west in their wagon-trains and settle the American West.

Q: Circle the wagons! Evict the natives! Manifest our destiny!

A: Yes, all that awkward historical stuff. 

Q: So we know about “jumping on the bandwagon” – but what about being “on the wagon” regarding drinking?

A: You’re right, the phrase “on the wagon” did relate to abstaining from alcohol, and dates back to 1904. But curiously, it was originally called being “on the water cart”. This is clearly how it got its name – you were helping yourself to water instead of liquor. Of course, the phrase “falling off the wagon” is just as common today – often relating not just to lapsing in staying sober, but any number of vices, such as dieting or giving up smoking.

Q: This reminds me of my Uncle Frank. We thought he’d given up his addiction to performing stunts from old Western movies. But then he fell off the wagon…

A: Hilarious.

Q: So to recap, bandwagons were originally for bands but then politicians jumped on board. And water carts were the original vehicles for alcohol abstaining, but today you can fall off the wagon for all sorts of things.

A: That’s it. And despite your best efforts, this week the wheels did not come off this wagon…

Do you have a question you’d like us to explore? Email it to us today!


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