Q From Miros Wicek: I was wondering if you could explain the etymology of to be on the wagon as meaning ‘to abstain from drinking alcohol’.
A There are several stories about its origin. Perhaps the most common one says it derives from prisoners who were on their way to jail on the back of a wagon. They were allowed one last drink in the local pub before the enforced temperance inside. A variation refers to condemned prisoners on the way from Newgate Prison to be hanged at Tyburn being allowed to stop at a hostelry to have a last drink before being put back on the wagon for the final part of their journey to execution. Hardly so. A young American was a little nearer when he wrote that, ‘My teacher says it was during the temperance movement when men would parade around town on a wagon to show they’ve conquered their demons’.
Since the Salvation Army is very keen on temperance, it isn’t surprising that the phrase has several times been attributed to them. An American Sally Army Web site says firmly that: “Former National Commander Evangeline Booth — founder William Booth’s daughter — drove a hay wagon through the streets of New York to encourage alcoholics on board for a ride back to The Salvation Army. Hence, alcoholics in recovery were said to be ‘on the wagon’”. The source seems impeccable, but the Sally Army is, alas, perpetrating another version of the same folk etymology.
However, the saying is indeed originally American and it is associated with wagons, of a sort. The original form, which dates from the early years of the twentieth century, was to be on the water-wagon, implying that the speaker was drinking water rather than alcohol and so was an abstainer, at least for the time being. The image of the horse-drawn water-wagon would have been an obvious one at the time — it was used to spray unpaved American streets in the dry summer months to dampen down dust thrown up by the traffic. A direct link with the temperance movement — very active at the time — would seem probable, though I’ve not been able to establish this for sure.