Making a pass

Posted by Smokey Stover on May 16, 2007

In Reply to: Making a pass posted by Cam on May 16, 2007

: There's a whole series of phrases I can't seem to find origins for, all dealing with a similar topic:

: - Making a pass at someone
: - Making a play at someone
: - Hitting on someone

: Any thoughts?

Let's start with no. 1, Making a pass at someone.

Although I did not find this usage in the OED (probably through oversight), I believe that "take a pass at something," or "make a pass at something," can be used to mean make an effort, give it a try.

This would be consonant with the use of "pass" in fencing, meaning "make a lunge or thrust." The OED gives as examples:
1604 SHAKESPEARE Haml. V. ii. 126 In a dozen passes betweene your selfe and him, hee shall not exceede you three hits. a1616 SHAKESPEARE Merry W. II. i. 211 In these times you stand on distance: your Passes, Stoccado's, and I know not what.

In U.S. slang the entire phrase, "make a pass at someone," has two separate meanings. The first is to attack. In the words of the OED,

"A threat of violence; an attempt to hit someone. Chiefly in to make a pass at.
1900 'J. FLYNT' & 'F. WALTON' Powers that Prey 156 It's time 't you get your graft in elsewhere. I ain't makin' no passes at you nor nothin', but if you sprint, you can catch that seven-thirty this evenin'. 1908 in G. H. Fleming Unforgettable Season 57 McGann..made a vicious pass at the Giants' manager. 1935 D. LAMSON We who are about to Die xi. 187 'Why you lyin' so-an'-so,' he says... An' he makes a pass at me. 1973 Playboy Jan. 240 'I could kill you, you know.' 'I don't know any such fuckin' thing... You ever made a pass at me, well, you better make a good one is all.'

The OED also uses the version associated with what we may call rude courtship, which became literary with Dorothy Parker:

"b. colloq. (orig. U.S.). An amorous or sexual advance. Also fig. Chiefly in to make a pass at.
1925 D. PARKER in World (N.Y.) 16 Aug. 3E/1 News Item... Men seldom make passes At girls who wear glasses...."

I think I see the connections that made this use possible, once you accept that a lunge and an effort have been encompassed by this word for a long time.