push comes to shove (1924)

Garson O'Toole adsgarsonotoole at GMAIL.COM
Fri Feb 26 20:46:20 UTC 2010

A work titled "Around the Tea-Table" by Thomas De Witt Talmage may be
useful in understanding the history of the phrase "when push comes to
shove". The date on the book is not clear but Thomas De Witt Talmage
died in 1902 and was a famous religious orator according to Wikipedia.

Chapter XXVI of the book is titled "Push and Pull". The terms Push and
Pull are personified as men in the chapter. Here is an excerpt:

The proposed improvement is about to fail, when Push comes up behind
it and gives it a shove, and Pull goes in front and lays into the
traces; and, lo! the enterprise advances, the goal is reached!


The chapter and the excerpt may fit the OED definition: "when action
must back up words; if or when one must commit oneself to an action or

The book has a 1923 date stamp from "The New York Public Library".
WorldCat only gives "18--?" as an estimated date. Someone wrote 1875
on the title page.


On Fri, Feb 26, 2010 at 11:14 AM, Benjamin Zimmer
<bgzimmer at babel.ling.upenn.edu> wrote:
> ---------------------- Information from the mail header -----------------------
> Sender:       American Dialect Society <ADS-L at LISTSERV.UGA.EDU>
> Poster:       Benjamin Zimmer <bgzimmer at BABEL.LING.UPENN.EDU>
> Subject:      push comes to shove (1924)
> -------------------------------------------------------------------------------
> The latest OED draft entry for "push" has "if/when push comes to
> shove" from 1940. Some earlier cites (the first three are from "The
> Week," by Defender columnist Roscoe Simmons):
> ---
> 1924 _Chicago Defender_ 9 Aug. II1/2 "Defense day," backed by
> President Coolidge, will be used to show you what you could do in a
> pinch and, also, to show Europe what Uncle Sam can do if push comes to
> shove.
> ---
> 1924 _Chicago Defender_ 4 Oct. II1/2 Hope that this matter will blow
> over, but if push comes to shove and you are called, don't make a
> mistake.
> ---
> 1926 _Chicago Defender_ 20 Feb. II1/2 He may even give the register of
> the treasury to some dark American if push comes to shove.
> ---
> 1932 _Chicago Defender_ 23 Jan. 14/2 Indeed, American sailors, like
> all Americans, are tough on ladies, all outside of their "race" first,
> and then their own if push comes to shove, at sea, on land, home or
> abroad.
> ---
> 1935 Arna Bontemps _Black Thunder_ 53 And, let push come to shove, He
> going to fight them down like a flock of pant'ers, He is.
> http://books.google.com/books?id=z3wGAQAAIAAJ
> ---
> 1937 _Atlanta Daily World_ 9 Mar. 2/6 It would be better, when push
> comes to shove, for you to put all of them out and after they are out
> a little while and realize what it is all about, they will be glad to
> come back and be good.
> ---
> And M.J. Devaney sends this one along:
> ---
> 1931 _Baltimore Sun_ 5 Dec. 36 "It's got to be one or two [whites],
> but if push come to shove, they're not going to do no better'n keep
> quiet." (in: "Mob Took Negro from Her Custody," quoting Snow Holden
> from the Eastern Shore of Maryland, regarding the inability of blacks
> to trust whites in the wake of the Matthew Williams lynching in 1931)
> ---
> --Ben Zimmer
> ------------------------------------------------------------
> The American Dialect Society - http://www.americandialect.org

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