Thursday, July 19, 2007

Take A Powder

“Take a powder!” used to be a more popular saying. It was a gruff demand that the targeted person leave. No one seems to know with certainty how the phrase started, but that never squelches speculation.

In 17th century Britain, the colloquial verb to powder meant to rush, to hurry impetuously. “Zacheus climb'd the Tree: But O how fast. . . (when Our Saviour called) he powder'd down agen!” [1632, Francis Quarles, Divine Fancies, I. lxvii]

Around the same time, to dust was a colloquial American phrase meaning to ride or go quickly, to hasten, to hurry. “Stick thou To thy sure trot..Let folly dust it on, or lag behind.” [1655, Henry Vaughan, Silex Scintillans, I. Rules & Lessons]

But it wasn’t until 1916 that we see Americans using to take a powder: “Look at the two birds trying to take a run-out powder on the eats.” [1916, Washington Post, May 20] Four years later, we find this: “The ‘Wilmington’ challenged us to a boat race, but when we slapped up a sack of good Chinese taels [money] to back our team, the ‘Wily Willie’ took a run-out powder and called off the race.” [1920, Our Navy, Aug. 33/1]

Notice that in both cases, the form is to take a run-out powder. Powdered medicines were common in that era for anything that ailed you, so it is possible that the origin of the phrase was a reference to a drug that would dull your sense of ethics or responsibility. There was definitely a pejorative edge to the phrase, a hint of chicanery or dereliction of duty.

Over the years, many explanations have been proffered:

• it started as a reference to gunpowder, which explosively propels bullets and shells
• it’s a reference to a laxative powder, which would cause you to run to the nearest toilet
• it’s a reference to the dust that our feet raise when we are scampering off
• it’s a reference to the “magical” powder used by magicians to make things disappear

SIDEBAR: to take a scampering powder

SIDEBAR: Powder--the band

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