Q: I was wondering how the expression “steal a march” came to mean get an advantage over somebody.
A: When the verb “steal” first appeared in Anglo-Saxon times it had the word’s usual modern meaning—to take something dishonestly, especially in secret.
That sense of acting secretly led to the use of the expression “steal a march” in the 18th century to mean get a secret advantage over a rival. Here’s the story.
The Oxford English Dictionary defines the original sense of the verb as “to take away dishonestly (portable property, cattle, etc., belonging to another); esp. to do this secretly or unobserved by the owner or the person in charge.”
The dictionary’s earliest citation, which we’ve expanded, is from the Benedictine Abbot Ælfric of Eynsham’s loose Old English translation, circa 1000, of Genesis in the Latin Vulgate:
“þæt feoh, pe we fundon on ure saccum, we læddon to þe of Chanaan lande. wenst þu, þæt we þines hlafordes gold oððe his seolfor stælon” (“That money, which we found in our sack, we brought to thee out of the land of Canaan. Think thou that we should steal thy lord’s gold or his silver?”). Genesis 44:8.
The verb “steal” has had many related meanings over the years, as in to steal happiness (circa 1374), steal a kiss (1390), steal writing (1544), steal a heart (1587), and steal a glance (1794).
The expression “steal a march” was originally used in a military sense, meaning to “succeed in moving troops without the knowledge of the enemy,” according to the OED.
The dictionary’s earliest citation, which we’ve expanded, is from a letter dated March 27, 1716, by the Town Council of Edinburgh in praise of the Duke of Argyll, commander of British forces in Scotland during the Jacobite uprising of 1715:
“We saw him with incredible celerity steal a march for our preservation; And when, by his surprising Expedition he had chas’d the enemy from our gates.”
The OED says the expression soon came to be used more generally to mean “to get a secret advantage over a rival or opponent.” In this example, which we’ve also expanded, it refers to one theater company’s getting an advantage over another:
“After we had stolen some few Days March upon them, the forces of Betterton came up with us in terrible order.” (From An Apology for the Life of Mr. Colley Cibber, Comedian, 1740, by Cibber, an actor and theater manager, as was Thomas Betterton.)
The dictionary’s next example is from The Expedition of Humphry Clinker (1771), by Tobias Smollett. In this expanded citation from the novel, the husband-hunting Tabitha Bramble tries to get a jump on her niece Lydia Melford:
“You must know, she yesterday wanted to steal a march of poor Liddy, and went to breakfast in the Room without any other companion than her dog, in expectation of meeting with the Baronet.”
We’ll end with an example from “The Oblong Box” (1844), a short story by Edgar Allan Poe: “He evidently intended to steal a march upon me, and smuggle a fine picture to New York, under my very nose.”