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On one’s tod

Q From Ed Matthews, UK: I used the phrase, on one’s tod, which means to be on one’s own, or is used to describe an object in isolation, and then realised I didn’t know its derivation. Might it be rhyming slang?

A One of the more delightful parts of writing these weekly missives is the odd byways that questions take me down. With this one, I ended up with horse racing and British royalty as well as the rhyming slang you mention.

The tod here is an American. He was born in 1874; his real name was James Forman Sloan, but later let it be known that his middle name was Todhunter and so is remembered as Tod Sloan. He was an inventive and highly successful jockey who pioneered what was called the “monkey ride” or “perching on the animal’s ears”: riding with short stirrups, lying low with his head almost on the horse’s neck. He was a colourful and difficult man, who made and squandered vast sums of money. In 1896 he crossed the Atlantic to Britain to become a rider for the then Prince of Wales, later Edward VII.

He fell disastrously from fame in 1901 when the Jockey Club, which controls British racing, denied him a licence because of some unspecified “conduct prejudicial to the best interests of the sport” (a newspaper report in 1903 said it was because its upper-class members found his arrogance and impertinence too offensive to put up with) and he then lost his American and French licences.

A writer in the Washington Post in 1903 described his state: “All of the flashy togs of his marvelous days as a race rider are gone. He doesn’t wear any jewelry any more. I can remember when he had almost a whole floor of one of the finest hotels in New York. Not now. He hasn’t got any ‘man’ any more to lay his clothes out, because he is minus the clothes. ... His Panhard and Mercedes touring autos are all gone — everything of Tod’s is gone.”

He died alone in poverty in Los Angeles of cirrhosis of the liver in 1933 — though he was well enough remembered for his death to be widely reported — and it was about this time that the rhyming slang to be on your Tod Sloan, to be alone, first appeared. Like many such phrases it became shortened and so, though the short form on your tod is still common British English, hardly anybody remembers the American jockey who inspired it.

Australians have their own version, on your Pat Malone. It’s first recorded in 1907; where it comes from is not altogether clear, but a popular ballad, Paddy Malone in Australia, was noted in the 1870s and appeared in a collection by Banjo Paterson in 1906. It tells the story of an illiterate Irishman, Pat Malone from Tipperary, who was tempted out to Australia, suffered various calamities as a sheep and cattle herder in the outback, and returned home sadder but wiser. The song was widely enough known that it seems likely his name was seized on to make the rhyming slang expression. Several subscribers gave it as Tod Malone, so it looks very much as though the British and Australian versions have blended.

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Copyright © Michael Quinion, 1996–. All rights reserved.
Page created 23 Oct. 2004

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The English language is forever changing. New words appear; old ones fall out of use or alter their meanings. World Wide Words tries to record at least a part of this shifting wordscape by featuring new words, word histories, words in the news, and the curiosities of native English speech.

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Last modified: 23 October 2004.