Dear Word Detective: I was in a European meeting chaired by a Dutch person who spoke the English language with far greater facility than is commonly heard these days in the UK. He told the meeting that we needed to be careful not to “jump the gun,” and reiterated that “jumping the gun” would be something best avoided later on. Now, he used the phrase quite correctly in meaning that we should avoid taking precipitate action, and we needed better information upon which to base a decision, but I confess I had no real idea where the phrase came from (and found myself wondering what the interpreters made of it!). I suspect, because it tends to be a rich source, that the 18th or 19th century Royal Navy might have something to do with it, but thought I would seek the wisdom of our American friends. — Adrian.
Hmm. I hate to shoot down your hunch, because under the circumstances it was perfectly logical, but while the Royal Navy may be a rich source of many wonderful things, verifiable stories about word and phrase origins are not among them. In fact, given stories purporting to tie phrases such as “son of a gun,” “not enough room to swing a cat” and many others to life aboard British warships, the Royal Navy must be counted as one of the world’s leading sources of utter nonsense. Spurious etymologies involving Her Majesty’s naval forces are so common, in fact, that some wag (I wish I knew who) came up with an acronym for the purveyors of such tales — CANOE, the Committee to Ascribe a Naval Origin to Everything.
In the case of “jump the gun,” meaning “to act before the permitted or appropriate time,” the gun in question is about as far from one of the massive cannons of the 19th century Royal Navy as it is possible to get. It’s a starting pistol, a small revolver used to fire blanks to signal the start of a race, particularly a foot race. To “jump the gun” in this literal context means to step across the starting line, either accidentally or on purpose, before the gun actually fires, thereby gaining an advantage, even if literally only momentarily, over the other runners. “Jump the gun” first appeared in print (as far as we know) only in 1942, but a 1905 citation for another form, “beat the pistol (or gun),” illustrates the problem: “False starts were rarely penalized … and so shiftless were the starters and officials that ‘beating the pistol’ was one of the tricks which less sportsmanlike runners constantly practiced.” As a metaphor for making a premature or false start, “jump the gun” is hard to beat, and has the advantage (for me, at least) of being set on dry ground.