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.”


  • (file)
  • 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.
  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 978-1-57230-947-0, 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 with a figurative or idiomatic meaning: see on,‎ the,‎ wagon.




  1. ^ On the wagon” in Michael Quinion, World Wide Words[1], created 18 July 1998, last updated 27 January 2006.
  2. ^ on the wagon” in Douglas Harper, Online Etymology Dictionary, 2001–2018.
  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 978-0-8160-3266-2.