Powder, to take a

Hello, I must be going.

Dear Word Detective:  My father, mother, aunts, uncles, and grandparents, all of whom are from Wisconsin, swear by “take a powder” as a phrase meaning “to leave a place in a hurry.” Until one of them had mentioned it, I had never heard of it before, which lead me to wonder aloud about its origin.  I thought it was referencing going to the “powder room,” which used to be a popular term for women’s restrooms, but one of my relatives said it was in reference to skiing, and that “taking a powder” originally meant falling down on the slopes, and the puff of snow that happens when you do.  I can understand that meaning (“powder” is still a popular term for snow today), but what does falling down have to do with leaving a place in a hurry?  Please help me solve this mystery. — Tom Davis, Las Vegas, NV.

That’s an interesting theory, and one I’ve never heard before.  I wasn’t aware that there even was skiing in Wisconsin, what with the cows all over the place.  But that “puff of snow” detail lends a definite cachet of authenticity to the story, so I give it three stars on a scale of four.  If your relatives can somehow work a sailing ship into the tale (which I realize might be difficult in Wisconsin), they could probably get half the internet to repeat it for the next ten years.

Unfortunately, that explanation of “to take a powder,” which has been US slang since the early 20th century for “to leave quickly, to run away” or as a command to “scram, get lost,” really doesn’t match the social circle in which the phrase first appeared, which was the underworld of petty criminals and gangsters.  It also doesn’t match the meaning of the phrase, which has always been, as you note, “to leave,” not “to fall down” or “to fail.”

Fortunately, there are some more likely theories (although no definite answer) as to where “to take a powder” came from.  You touched on one in your question — that to tell someone to “take a powder” was a way of saying “go visit the powder room” or “go powder your nose.”  For a male gangster to tell a subordinate to “take a powder” would thus be both dismissive and demeaning, and to “take a powder” (run away) in a stressful situation would be considered “unmanly.”  The “get lost” sense of “take a powder” would also fit nicely with a command meaning “go to the ladies room.”

Arguing against that source, however, is the fact that the phrase first appeared in the form “to take a run-out powder” (“Look at the two birds trying to take a ‘run-out’ powder on the eats,” Washington Post, 1916).  It’s possible that the original “run-out powder” in the phrase was a powerful laxative, also known as a “Mickey Finn,” sometimes surreptitiously administered to unruly bar patrons to get them to leave the premises.  (“Mickey Finn,” probably from the name of a bar owner in early 20th century Chicago, was also used to mean chloral hydrate (“knockout drops”), which rendered the victim unconscious.  In practice, the laxative “Mickey” was usually preferred because the victim left under his own power.)  Thus “to take a run-out powder” was to leave as quickly as if one had been dosed with a fast-acting laxative.

It’s also possible that “powder” in “take a powder” was a more innocent joke.  Many medicines of the times, such as headache remedies, came in the form of  small envelopes of powder to be mixed with water.  With “take a headache powder” and “take a stomach powder” being commonly heard, it would have been witty to say of someone who just left abruptly that he “must have taken a run-out powder,” later shortened to simply “he took a powder.”

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