Q: The use of “kick the can” now in vogue among pundits and politicians has nothing to do with the childhood game I played 60 years ago. How did kicking the can “down the road” become such a common cliché?
A: The expression “kick the can down the road,” meaning to procrastinate or put off solving a problem until later, isn’t quite as new as you may think.
It first showed up in the 1980s, according to a search of newspaper and literary databases, though of course it’s not nearly as old as the game kick-the-can, which has been mentioned in print since the late 1800s.
In the game, a variation of hide-and-seek, the kid chosen to be “it” tags, or captures, players and puts them in a holding area near the can.
The game is over when “it” captures all the other children. But if one of the free players sneaks up and kicks the can, the captured children are released.
We’ve found several 19th-century mentions of the game. Here’s one from The Story of Aaron, an 1896 children’s book by Joel Chandler Harris, author of the Uncle Remus stories:
“ ‘Oh, come and help us, Drusilla!’ cried Sweetest Susan, as gleefully as if she were playing hide-the-switch, or kick-the-can.”
(In hide-the-switch, another children’s game, the child who finds the switch is allowed to hit one of the players with it.)
The earliest example we could find for the expression “kick the can down the road” is from an Associated Press article that ran on Feb. 26, 1985, in the Galveston (TX) Daily News, the Gettysburg (PA) Times, and other newspapers:
“Whether or not the reason for the delay is exclusively for technical reasons, this official said the delay ‘kicks the can down the road’ in terms of making it a less pressing problem with the Soviets.”
William Safire, commenting on the usage in a 1988 On Language column in the New York Times Magazine, suggests that the children’s game inspired the expression:
“What a superb use of metaphor. Who has not, as a kid, played kick-the-can, or in less organized fashion kicked a can or other nonbiodegradable container ahead?”
We haven’t found any evidence proving that the game kick-the-can is the source of the expression “kick the can down the road.” But we’ve seen some evidence that suggests a connection.
For example, Twilight Zone: The Movie, which appeared in 1983 shortly before the expression showed up in print, includes a “Kick the Can” segment in which the game helps transform residents at a retirement home into their youthful selves.
We didn’t see the movie, but the 1959 TV segment on which it was based begins with kids kicking a can around in an aimless way (or, to use Safire’s phrase, “in less organized fashion”) before playing the actual game.
Did that aimlessness suggest the procrastinating sense of “kick the can down the road”? Perhaps, but another explanation may lie in the etymology of the verb “kick.”
Since the early 1800s, the verb phrases “kick about” and “kick around” have meant “to walk or wander about; to go from place to place, esp. aimlessly,” according to the OED. The dictionary describes the usage as a colloquialism that originated in the US.
The earliest example of this usage in the dictionary is from A New Home—Who’ll Follow, an 1839 book by the American writer Caroline Matilda Kirkland: “We heard that he was better, and would be able to ‘kick around’ pretty soon.”
The Random House Historical Dictionary of American Slang has 20th-century examples of a similar expression, “kick it around,” which it defines as to carouse.
Here’s the earliest citation, from Ceiling Zero, a 1936 Howard Hawks film starring James Cagney and Pat O’Brien: “You gotta learn to kick it around. Look at Dizzy—he’s having a great time.”
We’ve probably spent way too much time thinking about this can-kicking business, but there’s one other way of looking at the relationship between the game kick-the-can and the expression “kick the can down the road.”
In kick-the-can, the kicking frees the captured children and delays a resolution of the game, which could loosely be described as putting off a solution to a problem.
Sorry we can’t be more definite about this, but we’ve given you a few ideas to kick around.