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Have no truck with

Q From Louis Cohen: I used to think that the expression to have no truck with — to disagree with or refuse to be involved with — was strictly rural American dialect, until I read it recently in The Economist. Where does this come from? Was there once the opposite usage in the sense that sharing a truck meant to go along with someone?

A The evidence suggests that the expression is actually British. The first example I’ve so far turned up is this:

“I think,” said Corney, “we’d better get him up to bed at once?” “Do what yow like,” replied aunt Ann. “It makes no odds to me: I’ll ha’ nothing to do with him! — I’ll have no truck with a tocksicated man.”

The Steward, by Henry Cockton, 1850. Cockton was a minor English writer of the period, best known in his lifetime for his novel The Life and Adventures of Valentine Vox, the Ventriloquist. Tocksicated = “intoxicated”.

For the genesis of the term we must go back to medieval England. Truck had been borrowed from Old French troquer, which meant to obtain goods by barter or to give in exchange. It still does in expressions such as truck farm for a market garden, because its produce was often bartered rather than sold. Truck here has nothing to do with vehicles; that sense comes from a different source, a Latin word meaning the sheaf of a pulley, later a small wooden wheel.

In order to barter you had to negotiate with the person you were dealing with and truck later extended to refer to dealing or trading in all sorts of commodities. By the seventeenth century it had broadened and weakened into the idea of communication in general or of being on familiar terms with another person.

It was then only a short step, though it seems to have taken quite a while, to generate have no truck with, meaning not only that you didn’t want any commercial dealings with a person but that you didn’t want to know them at all.

It’s sometimes suggested that the expression developed during the mid-nineteenth-century railway age in Britain. The gangs of navvies who were employed to drive the rails through Britain were often exploited. One method was, in effect, to pay them in goods rather than money. Railway contractors gave workmen vouchers that were redeemable for poor-quality food and other necessities at inflated prices only at company stores called truck shops — a further extension of the idea of truck meaning barter. This abuse was widely deplored, although it took until late in the century for it to be finally stamped out. It might seem that the exploitation generated the idiom among its opponents, but the etymological evidence argues otherwise.

Page created 21 Jan. 2012

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Last modified: 21 January 2012.