Pull the trigger on X = set plan X in motion

Neal Whitman nwhitman at AMERITECH.NET
Fri Oct 31 02:59:21 UTC 2008

Another resend after a spam-filter problem.

----- Original Message ----- 
From: Neal Whitman 
To: American Dialect Society 
Sent: Tuesday, October 28, 2008 11:37 PM
Subject: Pull the trigger on X = set plan X in motion

On an episode of "Mad Men" from late in season 1 or early in season 2, senior executive Don Draper says to the president of the company, "I've decided to pull the trigger on Duck Phillips." I couldn't believe what I was hearing -- the question had been whether to hire this guy for a high-level position, and all of a sudden there was talk of actually murdering him? The context soon made it clear that Draper meant to finalize the hire. 

Soon after, I became aware of "pull the trigger on" in my wife's business-speak, with the same meaning of moving decisively on a previously considered plan. I wondered if this expression really was current in 1960 or 1962 (depending on which episode the line was in), so I did some searching on Google Books. I found plenty of attestations from 2000 on, fewer in previous years. So far, the earliest one I've found is this one:

I know that count was loaded and that no one would pull the trigger on that.
Hearings Before the Committee on the Judiciary, House of Representatives, Sixty-fourth Congress, First[-second] Session
By United States, United States Congress. House. Committee on the Judiciary, Congress, Committee on the Judiciary, House
Published by G.P.O., 1916

A few other early ones, sparse in the first half of the 20th century, somewhat more frequent later:

It seemed to be a small fire, but was enough to 'pull the trigger' on conditions that were just right." 
Bulletin of the American Meteorological Society
By American Meteorological Society
Published by American Meteorological Society, 1924

... to acquaint them with possible requirements, so that if we have to pull the trigger on an industrial mobilization plan it will not hang fire for 2 or 3 ...
United States Congressional Serial Set
By United States Government Printing Office
Published by U.S. G.P.O., 1947

.. them under the special conditions when earthquakes instead of heavy rains pull the trigger. 
Causes of Catastrophe: Earthquakes, Volcanoes, Tidal Waves, and Hurricanes
By Lewis Don Leet
Published by Whittlesey House, 1948
Original from the University of Michigan
Digitized Jul 6, 2007
232 pages

... and help "pull the trigger" on the natural calamities which are visited upon him. 
You Live After Death
By Harold Morrow Sherman
Published by Creative Age Press, 1949
Original from the University of California
Digitized Jul 23, 2007
205 pages

There is no definite proof that hormones fed to animals pull the trigger on cancer in humans or cause perforated gastric ulcer or appendicitis or prevent ...
Strong Medicine
By Blake F. Donaldson
Published by Doubleday, 1962
Original from the University of Michigan
Digitized Aug 18, 2008
245 pages

So it looks like the expression was indeed in use by the 1960s. Does anyone have pre-1914 attestations?

Neal Whitman

The American Dialect Society - http://www.americandialect.org

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