[Ads-l] "moving the goalposts"

Peter Reitan pjreitan at HOTMAIL.COM
Wed Apr 17 04:00:51 UTC 2019

In the aftermath of the submission of the Mueller report and subsequent Barr memo, I heard a lot of talking heads accusing other talking heads of "moving the goalposts."  I guess I had heard it before, but not so frequently.  In 1990, William Safire quoted a British newspaper editor as saying that it was British.  But strangely, the earliest citation he provided was from an American in 1978.

I found the idiom, "moving the goalposts," in the United States in 1932.  At the time, the position of the goalposts in American football was under intense debate - the goalposts had been moved from the goal-line to the back of the end-zone in 1927, and the professionals would move the goalposts back to the goal-line in early 1933.

New York's Mayor Walker used the idiom referring to efforts to benefit Roosevelt by making changes to the Democratic nominating process in the middle of the convention.

[Begin excerpt]
 “The two-thirds rule will be a good thing to abolish for the next convention, but trying to change it now is like moving the goal posts up five yards in the middle of a football game.  It’s a sport-loving country, and we prefer play according to the rules.”
[End excerpt]
The News (Paterson, New Jersey), June 28, 1932, page 3.

Several other politicians used the related idiom, "change the rules in the middle of the game," to describe the same events.  That idiom dates to at least 1889, and frequently in print after 1913.

During war games of the British Navy in 1889, the British fleet captured three ships of the Achillean fleet.  A subsequent order to release the ships was considered unfair.

[Begin excerpt]
These instructions are tantamount to an alteration of the rules in the middle of the game, and seeing that the very last ton of coal at Falmouth was used in coaling them, and that a redistribution of the Fleet was made on their being counted on this side, it is not too much to say that this order has utterly upset, for the moment, the strategical and coaling arrangements.
[End excerpt]

The Standard (London), August 22, 1889, page 5.

The goalpost idiom appears again, in Canada, British Columbia in particular, in the late-1950s and into the 1960s.  In the early 1950s, Arthur Laing, a Member of Parliament from Vancouver, British Columbia, used the idiom in his newspaper column, “This Week in Canada’s Parliament.”

[Begin excerpt]
Reaction to the Report is good throughout the country and probably Mr. Knowles expressed most people’s thoughts when he said “let’s get it adopted” before as he inferred “moving the goal posts again.”
[End excerpt]

Richmond Review (Richmond, British Columbia), July 5, 1950, page 2.

I did not find it in the United States again until 1970.  It seems to have ticked up in 1974, shortly after the NFL moved the goalposts to the back of the end-zone again.

On my blog:

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

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