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Jump the gun

Posted by Sauerkraut on January 19, 2002

In Reply to: Jump the gun posted by Sauerkraut on January 19, 2002

: : : : a class assignment is to find the origin of the phrase of "jump the gun." Hope you can help. I have searched and can't seem to narrow down my search. Thanks

: : :
: : : Guns (shooting blanks, fortunately) are tradionally used to start races. To leave the starting blocks before the signal, to "jump the gun," is to start prematurely. No fair.

: : JUMP THE GUN -- "?an expression about 50 years old that derives from both foot racing and hunting. An anxious runner often jumps the gun, that is, starts before the starter fires his pistol in a track event, and a startled pheasant will frequently take flight before a hunter can fire his gun, both situations responsible for our figurative use of the phrase -- to begin something before preparations for it are complete." From "The Encyclopedia of Word and Phrase Origins" by Robert Hendrickson, Page 285, (Facts on File, New York, 1997).

: Although the venerable Mr. Hendrickson is usually right on with his explanations, the second half of his explanation of the subject expression is WRONG!

: No ethical hunter would shoot a pheasant before it took flight, nor would that usually be possible, since a concealed bird is difficult to see. The whole idea of pheasant hunting is to flush the birds into flight so that they become visible and thus are available targets.

: A related expression in our language is "shooting ducks in (on) a pond." In this case, the targets would be very visible and very vulnerable - literally "sitting ducks". Again, no ethical hunter would shoot them in this situation.

: FINAL NOTE: Please do not turn this thread into a debate on fire-arms, gun regulation, hunting or any such topics. I offer my comments only to explain the origin of phrases we use.

Follow-up. After re-reading Mr. Hendrickson's citation, I realized that this expression has to be more than 50 years old. I suspect that it could be traced to the mid 1800s and following, when impromtu horse races were a feature of regional fairs and gatherings. These races were often started by a gun shot (real bullet this time) since it was a clear signal to begin the race.

Another way of starting such a race was for the finish line judge to hold his hat high in the air and then "drop his hat" or more accurately, swoop it downwards. Hence another of our fine phrases - "I'd do it at the drop of a hat."