The Grammarphobia Blog

Amphibian transportation

Q: Your recent discussion about “tadpoles” and “pollywogs” reminded me of another amphibian usage, “frog march.” Can you enlighten me?

A: When “frog march” first showed up in Britain in the 19th century, it was a noun phrase that referred to a way of moving recalcitrant prisoners.

The Oxford English Dictionary describes this usage as historical (that is, it’s used now in referring to a practice of the past) and defines the noun phrase this way:

“A method of moving a resistant person (such as a prisoner), in which he or she is lifted by the arms and legs and carried in a prone position with the face pointing towards the ground; the action or an act of moving a person using this method, or an instance of being moved in this way.”

The earliest example of the phrase in the OED is from an 1871 issue of the Evening Standard in London: “They did not give the defendant the ‘Frog’s March.’ ”

The phrase soon crossed the Atlantic and showed up in American usage in an 1874 issue of the Daily Evening Bulletin in San Francisco:

“The London method is called the ‘frog’s march’; in which the prisoner is carried to the station, with the face downwards and the whole weight of the body dependent on the limbs.”

In the 20th century, however, “frog-march” evolved into a verbal phrase for an action that’s not quite that extreme or uncomfortable.

The OED says “to frog-march,” which came along in the 1930s, means “to hustle forwards (a reluctant or resisting person), typically by seizing the collar or pinning the arms behind the back.”

Here’s a recent example, from Stephen Brown’s Free Gift Inside! (2003), a book about marketing : “I failed to wait behind the yellow line, as instructed, and was promptly frog-marched … to a welcoming interrogation room.”

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