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From pillar to post

Q From Rice Mixon: Please shed light on the origin and meaning of From pillar to post. I recently came across the version from pile to pillar.

A An interesting variation, showing how little the idiom is now understood. A lot of people are unsure even of the meaning, which is to be forced to go from one place to another in an unceremonious or fruitless manner, occasioning much frustration and anger in the process.

There are two theories about its origin among the experts. (You didn’t think you were going to get a straightforwardly simple answer, did you?)

One suggests that the post was a whipping post and that pillar actually refers to the pillory. The suggestion is that a criminal being punished in medieval times would first be tied to the post to be whipped and then put in the pillory for public amusement. One thing in favour of this idea is that the original version of our idiom, which first appeared around 1420, was the other way around: from post to pillar. But if it were true, you’d expect to get at least one recorded usage of from post to pillory and none are known. I count this a folk etymology of an especially ingenious type.

However, the alternative — the one that most dictionaries rather cautiously subscribe to — sounds even more outlandish. It is said that it derives from the ancient game of tennis, the version that is now called real tennis (court tennis in the USA) to distinguish it from its upstart successor, lawn tennis. The original game was played by personages of high status in rather complex indoor courts and it is supposed that the pillars and posts were parts of it.

World Wide Words subscribers have since suggested yet a third possible source, based on similar idioms in other languages, that is more plausible than either.

Pepijn Hendriks pointed out that Dutch has a very similar metaphor, van het kastje naar de muur (“from cupboard to wall”), which is mainly used in the expression van het kastje naar de muur gestuurd worden (“to be sent from cupboard to wall”). Because cupboards are usually attached to walls, the expression evokes an image of not getting very far towards the resolution of a problem. He suggests that as cupboard and wall are virtually equivalent in terms of their perceived position, so pillar and post similarly suggest two objects of similar kind that are likely to be close together.

Dominik Weber commented that a German expression refers to being sent von Pontius zu Pilatus. (Pepijn Hendriks tells me this is also known in Dutch.) Pontius and Pilatus were of course the same person: in English Pontius Pilate, the Roman procurator of Judea. Again, we have the idea of two closely equivalent or even identical references as the two halves of the idiom. Maria Escobar tells me that Spanish has the closely similar idiom ir de Herodes a Pilatos, to go from Herod to Pilate, as Jesus was before the Crucifixion.

These Dutch, German and Spanish idioms certainly suggest a model for the English phrase.

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Page created 17 Dec 2005; Last updated 19 Dec 2005