Answer Man: What does a wagon have to do with drinking?

News-DemocratJune 24, 2013 

Q. Through the years when I offer someone a drink, they sometimes politely decline by saying, "I'm on the wagon." Then, if they start drinking again, they say they've fallen off the wagon Where and when did these expressions originate? -- J.E. Quevreaux, of Columbia

A. At first glance, it sounds like someone put the cart before the horse.

When I think of liquid refreshment and wagons, I always think of the Budweiser beer wagon rolling down the street in a holiday parade. But if you're giving up the devil's brew, you wouldn't want to be anywhere near that regal Clydesdale hitch. Moreover, the only way to stop drinking would be to step off (or fall off) that wagon -- just the opposite of the popular expressions you ask about.

But as you might guess, the "wagon" in question here involves a liquid that would send those looking for hooch into the DTs. Here's the real story:

In the late 19th century, several major temperance organizations began to emerge, including the Women's Christian Temperance Union in 1874 and the Anti-Saloon League in 1893.

They took their cues from the Total Abstinence Society, which urged all men to take "the pledge." Not a namby-pamby "I will only have a cold, frosty one after mowing the lawn or during a football game," but an absolute promise never, ever to imbibe again:

"I promise to abstain from all intoxicating drinks except used medicinally and by order of a medical man, and to discountenance the cause and practice of intemperance."

At about the same time, water carts were becoming an increasingly popular sight around U.S. cities. No, these didn't deliver Aquafina and Evian to thirsty customers. Instead, these carts were used to dampen unpaved roads that would become horribly dusty in the hot, summer sun.

You probably now can put two and two together. Those who vowed to give up booze reportedly said that they would rather quench their thirst from a water-cart than belly up to the bar. This quickly was shortened to "I'm on the water-cart."

According to language historian Robert Hendrickson, the first reference can be found in the popular 1901 novel "Mrs. Wiggs of the Cabbage Patch" by Alice Hegan Rice.

"I wanted to get him some whiskey," Mrs. Wiggs says of Dick, the local sot. "But he shook his head. 'I'm on the water-cart.'"

Soon, "water wagon" was substituted for cart (probably for its alliterative sound), although cart is reportedly still popular in England. Eventually, "water" was dropped entirely, which explains why most people today are understandably ignorant of its origin. And because breaking the pledge was so easy, people just as soon began describing those wayward souls as falling off the wagon.

Of course, climbing on and falling off the wagon now extends far beyond alcohol. If you search the Internet, you'll find people applying the term to dieting, exercise, government spending binges -- yes, even serial-killing.

"His confession seems to indicate he didn't murder at all for two long periods -- 13 years, then eight years -- before falling off the wagon each time," a reporter for The Spokesman-Review in Spokane, Wash., wrote about Robert Lee Yates on Oct. 26, 2000.

Too bad the wagon didn't run over him.

Q. A friend of mine mentioned that she heard of a new procedure for patients with atrial fibrillation. I have it and would like to know more. -- P.W., of O'Fallon

A. Ever see a cowboy tame a calf by roping its feet? That's sort of what surgeons are now doing to control atrial fibrillation, a heart rhythm abnormality that can produce fatal strokes.

Using minimally invasive surgery, surgeons guide two catheters to the heart, where they tie off the heart's left atrial appendage with a pre-tied suture loop. This significantly reduces a patient's stroke risk and may eliminate the need for blood thinners.

St. Louis University, for example, recently performed its first "occlusion" on a 70-year-old woman who was unable to take blood thinners. For information, go to or talk to your cardiologist.

Today's trivia

What state capital originally was known as Pig's Eye?

Answer to Sunday's trivia: When John Wanamaker was a boy, a merchant once refused to exchange a purchase. As the story goes, Wanamaker promised himself he'd treat customers better if he went into business. He got the chance in 1861, when he and his brother-in-law opened a men's clothing store in Philadelphia. By 1868, he was the sole owner, so he bought the abandoned Pennsylvania Railroad station and turned it into Wanamaker's Grand Depot. It became the first department store with electric lights (1878), telephone (1879), pneumatic tubes to transport cash and documents (1880), a restaurant and price tags. In 1995, Wanamaker's was absorbed by Hecht's, which is now Macy's. The original store is now Macy's Center City.

Send your questions to Roger Schlueter, Belleville News-Democrat, 120 S. Illinois St., P.O. Box 427, Belleville, IL 62222-0427 or or call 239-2465.

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