Q&A: The origin of ‘sitting on the fence’

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, fence-sitters…

Q: Hi AWC, what does it mean to “sit on the fence”?

A: It means you will get a sore bottom.

Q: Hilarious.

A: Okay, well, the first thing to know is that this is a figurative saying – no one is actually sitting on any fences. Macquarie Dictionary lists it as “to remain neutral; to avoid conflict”.

Q: Because you’re not picking a side?

A: Exactly. The very similar “to be on the fence” about something is to be undecided. You could fall either way.

Q: Sure, it makes sense. But I’m guessing there was a LITERAL fence in history that started it all, right? I’m hoping it’s one of those white picket ones.

A: You’d think so, but this phrase appears to have always been figurative. The Online Etymology Dictionary suggests that it turned up in America in 1828 already packaged in this way. It may have come from spectators of a fight sitting on a fence, or the assertion that “a man sitting on the top of a fence can jump down on either side with equal facility.”

Q: I was really hoping for an actual fence.

A: We know you were.

Q: So it has been popular since the 1820s?

A: Well, not really. This is where another event comes into play. It involves American politics.

Q: Is it about Aaron Burr? Because in the musical Hamilton, he was famously on the fence. He wanted to wait and see which way the wind would blow. Wait for it, wait for it…

A: No, it was not about Aaron Burr in the musical Hamilton. Can we get back to politics?

Q: Please.

A: The election of 1884!

Q: Oh okay. What’s that one? Abe Lincoln?

A: Nope, he was shot dead in 1865. This particular election was notable for what was described as unpleasant mudslinging and shameful personal allegations that eclipsed substantive issues”.

Q: So I see nothing has changed then.

A: Haha. Well, back then it was a big deal. The two presidential candidates were Democrat Grover Cleveland and Republican James Blaine. However, the Republican candidate had a history of corruption…

Q: Wow, seriously, nothing has changed!

A: Well here’s something that WAS different. Back then, many Republicans were strongly opposed to this sort of corruption, so they switched allegiances to support Cleveland – the Democrat candidate.

Q: Ah okay, yeah, that wouldn’t happen today.

A: Exactly. Anyway, this group was given the name “mugwumps” – a term that had earlier come from the Native American word “mugquomp” and originally meant “a person of importance” or “war leader”.

Q: Oh, so they were highly regarded for their stance?

A: Pffft, no! The newspapers had chosen this name in an ironic way – using it as a term of derision, stripping away any reverence the word once held.

Q: But how does this relate to fence sitting?

A: Good question. This group of “mugwump” politicians was also described as “birds sitting on a fence” – who had their “mug” on one side and their ‘wump’ (thought to be referring to their “rump”) on the other. Essentially, they were being accused of having one part in the Democrats camp and the other in the Republicans.

Q: What an odd name to give them.

A: You must remember that this was the 1880s, and people had to make do with whatever entertainment they could cobble together.

Q: Good point. But wait. They weren’t even fence sitters – they actually MADE a decision!

A: That’s a good point! They were more like fence straddlers, yet that was good enough for the newspapers of the day.

Q: Ouch, fence straddling sounds even more painful than fence sitting.

A: Not recommended, especially if it’s a high spiky fence. By the way, the term “straddle the fence” is also used today, to refer to someone who supports both sides.

Q: So, did Super Grover win?

A: Yes, Grover Cleveland became the 22nd president of the USA, in part because of the votes from the mugwumps.

Q: And “fence sitting” got popular after that?

A: The term did. The act, we must restate, has never been popular and we do not recommend trying it at home. Stay off fences, people.

Q: And “mugwump”?

A: The word lives on in dictionaries as someone who politically remains independent or neutral.

Q: So, a fence sitter! Unlike the original mugwumps of 1884.

A: Yes, unlike them. Today it does indeed align more accurately with being on the fence.

Q: All this talk today reminds me of my great uncle Tom who worked in a fence factory. Employees were allowed to take home free product, but he always refused. 

A: Why?

Q: No one knows. He was called crazy, all sorts of names, and some of them got quite personal. But not once did he ever take a fence. Bahaaaa…

A: Groan. Get out.

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