on the wagon

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A mule-drawn water wagon for street cleaning in St. Louis, Missouri, USA, c. 1900–1910. The term on the wagon is a reference to such wagons.


Originally on the water wagon or on the water cart, referring to carts used to hose down dusty roads:[1][2][3] see the 1901 quotation below. The suggestion is that a person who is “on the wagon” is drinking water rather than alcoholic beverages. The term may have been used by the early 20th-century temperance movement in the United States; for instance, William Hamilton Anderson (1874 – c. 1959), the superintendent of the New York Anti-Saloon League, is said to have made the following remark about Prohibition: “Be a good sport about it. No more falling off the water wagon. Uncle Sam will help you keep your pledge.”


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  • Hyphenation: on the wa‧gon

Prepositional phrase[edit]

on the wagon

  1. (idiomatic) Abstaining from drinking any alcoholic drink, usually in the sense of having given it up (as opposed to never having partaken); teetotal.
    • [1901, Alice Caldwell Hegan, “How Spring Came to the Cabbage Patch”, in Mrs. Wiggs of the Cabbage Patch (Project Gutenberg; EBook #4377)‎[1], New York, N.Y.: Published by the Century Co., De Vinne Press, published 26 July 2009 (Project Gutenberg version), OCLC 301653, archived from the original on 24 October 2015, page 124:
      I wanted to git him some whisky, but he shuck his head. 'I'm on the water-cart,' sez he.]
    • 1915, Billy Sunday, Get on the Water Wagon, Journal Publishing Company:
      "Where did you get all that money?" / "Went to hear Bill and climbed on the water wagon."
    • 1917 (first published 1918 March), Edgar Rice Burroughs, “The Oakdale Affair”, in Blue Book Magazine (Project Gutenberg; EBook #363)[2], Chicago, Ill.: Story-Press Corp., published 25 January 2013 (Project Gutenberg version), OCLC 270523625, archived from the original on 30 March 2016; republished in The Oakdale Affair; The Rider, Tarzana, Calif.: Edgar Rice Burroughs, Inc., 1937, OCLC 8951886:
      "Sit down, bo," invited Soup Face. "I guess you're a regular all right. Here, have a snifter?" and he pulled a flask from his side pocket, holding it toward The Oskaloosa Kid. / "Thank you, but;—er—I'm on the wagon, you know," declined the youth.
    • 1995, George E[man] Vaillant, “The Natural History of Alcoholism”, in The Natural History of Alcoholism Revisited, Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, →ISBN, page 177:
      [T]hree years later he began formally to go on the wagon: "I quit drinking three months ago, hopefully for life."
    • 2009, Allen Carr, “Those Lucky Normal Drinkers”, in Easy Way to Control Alcohol, London: Arcturus Publishing, →ISBN, page 200:
      In fact regularly going on the wagon is a sure indication of a serious drink problem. If they genuinely enjoy a drink, why would they even want to go a month without one? Obviously because their drinking was causing them a problem.
    • 2022 July 18, Amelia Tait, “‘Alcohol is a hand grenade’: how reality TV went from boozy Big Brother to nosecco Love Island”, in The Guardian[3]:
      The Big Brother house guests drank liquor by the crateful. But Love Island’s tortuous trysts are fuelled by fruit juice and nosecco. Why did reality TV go on the wagon?
  2. (by extension) Maintaining a program of self-improvement or abstinence from some other undesirable habit.
    He’s been on the smoking cessation wagon for two weeks now.
    • 2003, Patt Denning; Jeannie Little; Adina Glickman, “Addiction: Is It All or Nothing?”, in Over the Influence: The Harm Reduction Guide for Managing Drugs and Alcohol, New York, N.Y.: Guilford Press, →ISBN, page 15:
      This book is about harm reduction. It is not about "getting clean." [] It is not about an all-or-nothing attitude: drink or be on the wagon, use or quit. It is about reducing the harm done by alcohol and other drugs in your life. Less harm is the solution.
    • 2015, Richard Foreman, “Managing Your Cravings”, in How to Quit Smoking in Simple Steps!: The Best Easy Ways to Stop Smoking, [s.l.]: Richard Foreman:
      Just because you've had a smoke doesn't mean that you need to become depressed and give up on quitting. This is a learning process and you need to take every day as it comes. Simply get back on the wagon and continue on with your nonsmoking goals. You can do this!
  3. Used other than figuratively or idiomatically: see on,‎ the,‎ wagon.





  1. ^ Michael Quinion (created 18 July 1998, last updated 27 January 2006), “On the wagon”, in World Wide Words.
  2. ^ Douglas Harper (2001–2023), “wagon”, in Online Etymology Dictionary, retrieved 2019-10-08: “Phrase on the wagon "abstaining from alcohol" is attested by 1904, originally on the water cart.”
  3. ^ Robert Hendrickson (1997) The Facts on File Encyclopedia of Word and Phrase Origins, rev. and exp. edition, New York, N.Y.: Facts On File, →ISBN.