The Grammarphobia Blog

Kicking down the ladder

Q: In reading my mother’s 1931 diary, I’ve noticed the expression “kicking over the lighter,” as in “The boys tried kicking over the lighter.” I can’t believe it should be taken literally. Any thoughts?

A: We aren’t familiar with “kicking over the lighter,” and we haven’t found the expression in slang and etymological dictionaries or in book and newspaper databases.

Perhaps your mother was thinking of “kicking over the ladder,” and either misheard the expression or misspelled it.

In that expression, and the more common “kicking down the ladder,” the word “ladder” is being used figuratively for the means by which one gets ahead in life.

The Oxford English Dictionary defines “kick down the ladder” as “said of persons who repudiate or ignore the friendships or associations by means of which they have risen in the world.”

The earliest OED example for the figurative use of “ladder” as a means to get ahead is from the Lambeth Homilies (circa 1175): “Ðis is sunfulla monna leddre” (“This is the ladder of sinful men”).

The dictionary’s first citation for the expression “kick down the ladder” is from a July 18, 1794, letter by Horatio Nelson (Vice Admiral Lord Nelson) to Samuel Hood (Admiral Lord Hood):

“Duncan is, I think, a little altered; there is nothing like kicking down the ladder a man rises by.”

The verb “kick” has been used since the 14th century in various expressions of equine origin that figuratively mean to rebel uselessly and painfully.

The earliest example in the OED is from a religious tract written around 1380 by the English theologian John Wycliffe:

“It is hard to kyke aȝen þe spore” (“It is hard to kick against the spur”). Oxford also has examples for “kick against the prick” (or “pricks”), and “kick against the goad.”

In addition, the dictionary has citations for the equine expression “kick over the traces” used figuratively to mean throw over the usual restraints.

The first example is from Ravenshoe, an 1861 novel by Henry Kingsley: “I’ll go about with the rogue. He is inclined to kick over the traces, but I’ll whip him in a little.”

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