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The meaning and origin of the expression: Paddle your own canoe

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Paddle your own canoe

Meaning

Act independently and decide your own fate.

Origin

The figurative meaning of 'padding one's own canoe' began to be used in the early 19th century. This was what was in mind of the author of The Selangor Journal: Jottings Past and Present, 1807, when reporting the lack of community spirit amongst the coffee planters in Malaysia:

If the planters would unite and use their united influence they could start a bank to advance money to deserving young planters... but they won't do it. They let each poor fellow paddle his own canoe, and if he capsizes and stretches out his hand in despair for someone to save him... they won't do it.

paddle your own canoeThe imagery of self-reliance that the phrase conjures up was employed by the founder of the Scouts Movement, Lord Baden-Powell, when he used it as the title of a book in 1939.

The independence of mind implicit in the advice the phrase conveys is plain to see in two gung-ho poems written on the subject in the USA in the 1850s.

- Paddle your own Canoe - anonymous, printed in the Wisconsin newspaper The Crawford County Courier, 1852:

My father die, God rest his soul,
When years I numbered two,
And left me 'midst this world alone,
To paddle my own canoe.

A step-grand-daddy, now no more,
Taught me my P's and Q.
And ever in my ears he dinned,
You'll paddle your own canoe.

My home was no Elysian spot
Of bright and sunny hue,
And therefore I the sooner left,
To paddle my own canoe.

And through the world I roamed at large,
O'er land and ocean blue;
And though the struggle oft was hard,
I paddled my own canoe.

For thus I argued, man to man,
Is often, times untrue;
Then while with health and strength you're blest
Just paddle your own canoe.

As partners in the strife for gain,
Self-interest will pursue;
And leave you with your debts, perhaps,
To paddle your own canoe.

And then no sympathy you'll find
From friends who once were true;
They knew you lost when first you ceased
To paddle your own canoe.

But I one cherished object sought
And ever kept in view;
A friend of pure unsullied heart,
'To paddle my own canoe.

A friend she is in word and deed—
Her interest mine is too;
The twain are one - I still may say,
I paddle my own canoe.

- Paddle Your Own Canoe - Sarah Bolton, 1851

Voyager upon life's sea,
To yourself be true,
And whatever your lot may be,
Paddle your own canoe.
Never, though the winds may rave,
Falter or look back;
But upon the darkest wave
Leave a shining track.
Paddle your own canoe.

Nobly dare the wildest storm,
Stem the hardest gale,
Brave of heart and strong of arm
You will never fail.
When the world is cold and dark,
Keep your aim in view;
And toward the beacon work,
Paddle your own canoe. ...

..Would you crush the giant wrong,
In the world's free fight?
With a spirit brave and strong,
Battle for the right.
And to break the chains that bind
The many to the few
To enfranchise slavish mind,-
Paddle your own canoe.

Nothing great is lightly won,
Nothing won is lost,
Every good deed, nobly done,
Will repay the cost.
Leave to Heaven, in humble trust,
All you will to do:
But if succeed, you must
Paddle your own canoe.

See other phrases that were coined in the USA.