Q From Mia Shinbrot: There’s an old drinking song that goes like this: ‘There was a little man who had a little can, and he used to rush the growler. He stuck his head in the barroom door, and he heard somebody holler, “No beer today! No beer today! You can’t get beer on Sunday. No beer today! No beer today! Just bring around the can on Monday.” ’ I have long wondered what rush the growler means. I suspect it may be a Prohibition reference, but I don’t know what it means. Can you help?
A I can help to some extent. To rush the growler (sometimes to roll the growler and other forms) was to take a container to the local bar to buy beer. The growler was the container, usually a tin can. Brander Matthews wrote about it in Harper’s Magazine in July 1893: “In New York a can brought in filled with beer at a bar-room is called a growler, and the act of sending this can from the private house to the public-house and back is called working the growler”. The job of rushing the growler was often given to children.
It’s certainly older than the Prohibition era: the first reference to the expression appeared in print around 1883. Though one early example suggests it was originally low tramps’ slang, by about 1885 it had clearly become widely known around New York and had become acceptable in print. However, James Greenough and George Kittredge wrote in Words and Their Ways in English Speech in 1901 that, “A score of such references might make the reader forget that this most objectionable expression ever was slang, or had any offensive associations”. What offensive associations? A clue may be in the Atlantic Monthly for February 1899: “It sometimes seems unfortunate to break down the second standard, which holds that people who ‘rush the growler’ are not worthy of charity, and that there is a certain justice attained when they go to the poorhouse”. The Atchison Globe of 14 November 1884 has “I have heard that in New York people of the working-class, who live in tenement-houses, send out a pitcher for beer in the evening. They call it ‘working the growler.’ Here in Chicago the best people indulge in the degrading practice, I regret to say.” The magazine Puck commented in May 1885: “The old, old story. The happy home, loving parents, the growler, the fall and ruin”. So people who indulged in growler-rushing were thought by moralistic commentators to be on the slippery slope towards destitution and self-destruction.
You’re waiting, of course, for me to tell you where growler came from. The noise you hear is me shuffling my feet in embarrassment. Nobody knows for sure. There were several expressions of like type around at the same period, including chase the duck, roll the rock, and hurry the can. In each case, the last word referred to the container in which the beer was fetched. Gerald Cohen and Barry Popik argue on the basis of chase the duck that it and rush the growler evoke the image of a hunter sending his dog rushing to fetch downed prey, so that the growler in our expression is the dog. That slang term was then transferred to the can.
Not everybody agrees with this origin — for example, the existence of forms like roll the growler and roll the rock render it less easy to imagine a hunting context; Jonathon Green, in the Cassell Dictionary of Slang, suggests that the word might have referred to the growling noise the full can made as it was pushed across the bar; an early reference, in the Trenton Times for 20 June 1883 said “It is called the growler because it provokes so much trouble in the scramble after beer”. None of these ideas is by the nature of things easy to prove or disprove. Oddly, there is an almost contemporary British English expression, to work the growler, to hire a cab to take one on a pub-crawl; here the growler is certainly a type of cab, though why it was given that name is unclear. It is just conceivable that the British expression crossed the Atlantic and changed its sense a little, but that doesn’t explain the other expressions of similar type, which are certainly native to the US.