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shameless pleading

To “fix someone’s wagon”

And we’ll throw in a free clock cleaning.

Dear Word Detective: I was reading a book by Spider Robinson and one of the main characters was a bartender. At one point there is an unruly customer and one of the regulars says “Don’t worry he’ll [the bartender] fix his wagon.” I deduced that that meant that the bartender was tough and could handle any problems. I was just curious as to where that phrase came from. My guess was that it has something to do with blacksmiths being the biggest men in town and also being able to fix wagons. What do you think? — Kyle.

What do I think? I think “Spider” is a pretty weird thing to name yourself. I know Spider Robinson is a famous and accomplished science-fiction author, and I know that he chose the name “Spider” himself (and apparently refuses to reveal his “birth name”). “Spider” is certainly more memorable and marketable than, say, “Paul Robinson.” But still. Arachnophobia has probably cost him at least a few readers.

Oh well, not my problem. Onward. “Wagon” in its most basic sense of “four-wheeled vehicle used to transport heavy or bulky goods” first appeared in English in the 15th century, adapted from the Dutch “wagen,” which was derived from Indo-European roots with the sense “to move or carry.”

Apart from its many and varied literal uses, “wagon” has done yeoman service in metaphors and figures of speech for the past few centuries, most notably in “on the wagon,” meaning “abstaining from alcohol,” which was originally “on the water wagon.” The water wagon was a fixture of cities and towns before paved roads became widespread, used to spray water on the dirt roads to keep down the dust. Someone who quit drinking was sardonically said to have “climbed aboard the water wagon,” assumed to be drinking only water from then on. A “bandwagon” was, as the name implies, an ornate wagon in a parade which carried the band, often along with local politicians, and drew much public attention, making “bandwagon” a good metaphor for a popular political cause. To “hop aboard the bandwagon” and similar phrases thus mean “to join what looks like the winning side.” Similarly, “to hitch one’s wagon to a star” means “to have lofty goals or ambitions.”

Wagons frequently needed repair, of course, and so the phrase “fix someone’s wagon” would have been a familiar phrase in the early 20th century. But the “wagon” in the phrase is less important to the sense of the phrase as it’s used today than the peculiar meaning of “fix.” This is not the usual “fix” in the sense of “repair.” This is “fix” as it appeared in the mid-19th century as euphemistic slang for “to deal with,” “to settle a dispute with” or even “to kill” an opponent. This “fix” is actually close to the original meaning of the verb “to fix” when it first appeared in English in the late 14th century, which was “to make fast or secure; to settle,” derived from the Latin “fixus,” immovable. This “nail it down” sense gradually broadened to mean “arrange, adjust,” which in turn eventually gave us the “repair” sense we use today.

So “to fix someone’s wagon” employs a perfectly innocent-sounding phrase as euphemistic slang for “settling a dispute for good in a very forceful manner” (“She said her brother would fix my wagon, which he did; right here at the corner of my mouth I’ve still got a scar where he hit me,” Truman Capote, 1951). Oddly enough, that 1951 citation from Truman Capote’s novel “The Grass Harp” is actually the earliest example found so far of the phrase in print. If the phrase is really that recent, it’s likely that the wagon in question is actually a child’s wagon (e.g., the Radio Flyer “little red wagon” so popular in the 20th century US), and the phrase originated either as children’s slang or, more likely, as a sarcastic adult reference to the perceived weakness of an opponent (e.g., “Oh, Tommy’s decided to go back on our deal, huh? Well, I’ll just go fix little Tommy’s wagon for him.”).

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