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The meaning and origin of the expression: Fell off the back of a truck

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Fell off the back of a truck

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Meaning

A euphemism for 'acquired illegally'.

Origin

When anyone accounts for their possession of an article by saying it 'fell off the back of a truck' or 'fell off the back of a lorry', they may be assumed not to be its legal owner - that is, it is stolen. 'Lorry' is the British version; in the USA and Australia things fall from trucks. This coy language, which feigns innocence but actually emphasizes illegality by using a phrase that is reserved for illegal dealing, is similar to The Godfather's 'an offer he can't refuse'. Others that relate specifically to stolen goods are the 'five finger discount' and 'I got it from a man in a pub'. Had 'air quotes' been in use at the time they might well have been called on when this phrase was first spoken.

The earliest printed versions of 'fell off the back of a lorry' come surprisingly late - like this early example from The Times, 1968:

"The suggestion of the finder, a casual motorist, that the records 'must have fallen off the back of a lorry'."

There are many anecdotal reports of the phrase in the UK from much earlier than that, and it is likely to date back to at least WWII. It's just the sort of language that the 'wide-boys' or 'flash Harrys' who peddled illegal goods during and after WWII would have used. These were exemplified in plays and films by the actors George Cole, Sid James, etc. I'm sure a thorough scan of the scripts of the post-war Ealing comedies would throw up a pre-1968 example.

Having been brought up in the truck-free UK with the 'fell off the back of a lorry' version, I have to now concede supremacy to 'fell off the back of a truck'. Versions of that from both Australia and the USA predate the English examples by many years. The earliest that I can find is from the official record of debates in the Australian House of Representatives - Hansard, 1928:

"We heard, through something that had fallen off the back of a truck onto a reporter's table."

In the USA the expression is found just a few years later - as in this example from The Tuscaloosa News, February 1937:

Many transients in Manhattan are constantly being trimmed by suave 'chauffers' in light delivery trucks who whisper confidentially that there are some bolts of cloth in the rear seat which fell off the back of a truck.

The meaning seems to have changed slightly since the phrase was coined. Almost all of the early references cite it as being used as patter in a scam to sell the unwary shoddy goods. The current usage is as a reference to a straightforward 'nudge, nudge/I won't tell if you won't' sale of stolen or smuggled goods.

A nostalgic word about lorries. Trucks are now travelling the world and, in the same way that the voracious American Grey Squirrel has overwhelmed the retiring European Red Squirrel, they are, on the road and in the dictionary, becoming dominant. The older generation in the UK is holding out and will have no truck with 'truck' but, as time goes by, lorries will turn into trucks, just a charabancs turned into coaches.