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The origin of "kick the can"

Nancy Marshall-Genzer Dec 19, 2011

Kai Ryssdal: I don’t know if you’ll remember this — I mentioned it on the show a couple of times — but back in the heyday of the financial crisis, we used to have a cliche wall around here. Trite phrases we were discouraged from using. ‘Tough economic times’ and things like that.

Not a moment too soon, we’re bringing it back — in audio form anyway — as Congress gets ready to yet again kick the can down the road. We granted Marketplace’s Nancy Marshall Genzer a special one-time dispensation to explore where the now horribly overused phrase came from.

Nancy Marshall-Genzer: When I was kid, we played a game called “Kick the Can.” When somebody kicked a can full of pebbles, you ran and hid. Like what Congress is doing now.

Douglas Harper created a website on the origins of words.  For him, the phrase conjures up an image of a kid kicking a can down the street.

Doug Harper: He’s going to come up upon it again in a few steps and have to do the same thing over again. I think that’s the essential idea here more than the game.

State department types used the phrase in the ‘80s to describe stalled nuclear arms negotiations with the Soviets. But where did it come from? University of Minnesota linguist Anatoly Liberman says the phrase might have been around for a century. I ask him: Can he give me a specific date?

Anatoly Liberman: No, but I’m happy to kick the can further down the road and hope that Michael will pick it up.

Michael is Michael Adams, English professor at Indiana University. He says the “kick the can” phrase may pre-date…cans.

Michael Adams: Who knows? Kicking the stone down the road? Yeah. It’s tough to pin something like that down.

It’s as old as procrastination.

In Washington, I’m Nancy Marshall Genzer for Marketplace.

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