kick the can down the road

Discuss word origins and meanings.
Post Reply

kick the can down the road

Post by dalehileman » Mon Jul 18, 2005 3:26 pm

EVidently means to delay the resolution of problem in the hope that it will go away or be addressed by somebody else. Is this expression commonly used in other senses

kick the can down the road

Post by Bobinwales » Mon Jul 18, 2005 3:46 pm

Dale, we sometimes kick it into the long grass, (where the ball can be lost for a while), or more often, kick for touch. In both soccer and rugby kicking the ball over the side line would stop the game for a very short time, and quite often relieve pressure. I have not heard about kicking cans though, although the analogy sounds about the same to me.
Signature: All those years gone to waist!
Bob in Wales

kick the can down the road

Post by russcable » Mon Jul 18, 2005 4:41 pm

I know of two categories of children's games called "kick the can" both of which are often played in the street. In either, the "can" can be an actually tin can or a ball or any other piece of debris suitable for kicking. One just involves kicking a can around with no goals or particular rules, i.e. just taking up time. In the other type, a round of the game is started by someone kicking the can as far as they can, then the person who is "it" has to reach the can before the next phase of the game can start giving the other players time to scatter, hide or whatever is required by the variation of the game.

Tracing through the political pundits writings in the Google hits, they seem to be referring back to "... this public strategy -- delaying a judgment on the weapons while justifying the war on other grounds ..." which "An aide to one of the Republican senators on the Armed Services Committee said the White House strategy is to "just kick the can down the road."

In the second type of game, "kicking the can down the road" is a delaying strategy or a means of buying time so this makes sense to the way it's being discussed, IMO. I don't think it necessary implies "the hope that it will go away or be addressed by somebody else." although it certainly could especially in the political area where one could concievably kick it down the road into the next administration ^_^.

kick the can down the road

Post by Ken Greenwald » Mon Jul 18, 2005 8:22 pm

Dale, Adding to Russ’ discussion: I’m also familiar with the game ‘kick the can’ (also see Safire’s descriptions below) from my youth in days of yore in New York City. However, I never heard the metaphor KICK THE CAN DOWN THE ROAD before, and I couldn’t find it listed in any sources. However, now that I have checked, I see that there has definitely been a proliferation of its use in the news of late (1169 Google hits).

As far as I can make out, the expression has two meanings: 1) To put off for later what could or should be done now; to postpone addressing, acting on, or making a decision etc. – postpone action (sometimes, as you say, in the hope that it will go away or be addressed by somebody else). 2) To make slow, desultory progress.

It seems (and I could be wrong) the expression first appeared in print in a 1988 On Language, William Safire N.Y. Times column (see quote below) where he quotes the use of this metaphor by an arms negotiator. Safire was enthusiastic over this ‘superb metaphor,’ and being the expert that he is on word and phrase origins, I think he would have discussed the origin of the phrase if this had not been the original coinage. In a later article he goes on to discuss the phrase in more detail (although he doesn’t mention the 1988 quote as being its first usage) as folows:

On Language by William Safire, N.Y. Times, June 15, 2003
KICK THE CAN: A reporter asked US Secretary of State Colin Powell, returning from a trip to the Middle East, about the "road map" agreement: "Isn't it just KICKING THE CAN FARTHER DOWN THE ROAD, putting off the most difficult issues, particularly settlements?"

"At least we have a can in the road," replied Powell, reared in New York and familiar with the children's game. "The can is in the road now, and we will start moving it down the road, perhaps with little kicks as opposed to a 54-yarder."

The metaphor is in play more than the game. In his final months in office, former US president Bill Clinton said he wanted to resolve Middle East problems sooner rather than later, but for "some foreign policy problems, the answer is to KICK THE CAN DOWN THE ROAD and wait for them to get better and hope time takes care of them."

Jim Lehrer put the title of his 1988 novel in the opening sentence: "I was too old to play kick the can anymore."

Diplomats do not use ring-a-levio, hopscotch, ring around the rosie, prisoner's base, Jackie shine a light or stoopball to describe global strategies. It's always KICK THE CAN, it always means "postpone action" and it calls for etymological examination.

Called "tin can Tommy" or "kick the tinnie" in Britain, the American version can be played by kicking a tin can down the street (or road, in rural areas), challenging the can-guarder to chase the can and bring it back to base while everyone hides. The can-guarder (a kid named "It") then has to find a player in hiding without anyone else's kicking the can.

The Dictionary of American Regional English (DARE) tells us that this version of hide-and-seek also goes by the names "kick the wicket" and "lurky nurky."

Not the game you remember? Another version, for urban rowdies, is setting a can on a sewer cover and seeing who can kick it so hard and so far that it breaks a window and everybody scatters before the cops get there.

If you have no playmates, and nobody loves you, there's the solitaire version: just walkin' along, kickin' the can ahead, watchin' it roll, kickin' it again, until you get to your destination or just get bored, at which point you let the next guy who comes along kick it farther down the road.

This is the diplomatic meaning of the extended metaphor, and if you can kick it 54 yards from a standing start, you're a better man than I am, Colin Powell.

Quotes from archived sources:
<1959 “‘. . . orthodox games like ‘KICK THE CAN’ and ‘Jacky Shine a Light.’”—‘The Lore & Language of School Children’ by Iona & Peter Opie, xviii. page 377>

<1969 “‘Tin Can Tommy,’ which is the basic name in London, is widely distributed . . . ‘KICK THE CAN,’ the usual name in Scotland and the Isles, is also not uncommon in Dublin, Liverpool, Manchester, and much of Wales.”—‘Children's Games in Street & Playground’ by Iona & Peter Opie, iv. page 166>

<1973 “My father called me in from outside, KICK THE CAN or one of those games we used to play.”—‘Ten Lost Years’ by B. Broadfoot, viii. page 86>

<1988 “Describing a modest advance in negotiations toward a strategic arms treaty, the negotiator Max Kampelman said, ‘We KICKED THE CAN DOWN THE ROAD,” What a superb use of metaphor. Who has not, as a kid, played kick-the-can, or in less organized fashion kicked a can or other nonbiodegradable container ahead? KICK THE CAN, which effectively summarizes desultory but definite progress, is the title of a novel by Jim Lehrer coming out in May; the opening words of the book are ‘I was too old to play kick-the-can anymore .. .’ As long as we have negotiators creatively kicking the can, this department will do the same to errant Senators and generals.’”—‘N.Y.Times,’ 17 January, page SM12>

<1998 “Secretary [[of Defense]] Cohen: ‘Son. we’ve got our endgame on NATO figured out just like we do in Iraq. It’s called KICK THE CAN DOWN THE ROAD and hope it all works out in the end.’”—‘N.Y.Times,’ 3 May, page A19>

<2001 “But it was unclear tonight when a vote would be taken on the proposal, and many Democrats predicted that the Senate majority leader, Tom Daschle, would postpone it for weeks. ‘The idea is to KICK THE CAN DOWN THE ROAD a bit,’ a Democratic official said.”—‘N.Y. Times,’ 19 September, page A12>

<2005 “‘I think they did what the Senate very often does, said Ross K. Baker, a professor of political science at Rutgers University and a longtime student of the Senate. ‘They KICKED THE CAN DOWN THE ROAD. They basically postponed a crisis and set up the predicate for another one in the future on the Supreme Court nomination.’"—‘Washington Post,’ 24 May>

<2005 “The administration position was perhaps best characterized by the state's transportation commissioner, Jack Lettiere, who pleaded with elected officials - and candidates - not to ‘KICK THE CAN’ DOWN THE ROAD by imposing a temporary solution on one of the state's worst recurring problems.”—‘N.Y.Times,’ 17 July>
Ken G – July 18, 2005

kick the can down the road

Post by Phil White » Mon Jul 18, 2005 8:36 pm

Thanks for the phrase, Dale, and for the elucidation, Russ and Ken.
Signature: Phil White
Non sum felix lepus

kick the can down the road

Post by Wizard of Oz » Tue Jul 19, 2005 10:36 am

.. a famous fantasy town in Aus where things move slowly and nothing ever really happens is Kickatinalong .. maybe has a common heritage to what you are speaking about ..

WoZ of Aus 19/07/05
Signature: "The question is," said Alice, "whether you can make words mean so many different things."

Re: kick the can down the road

Post by Ken Greenwald » Mon Feb 23, 2009 7:55 pm

Here’s an example from today's news of a can being kicked down the road in high places and a pledge to not:
<2009 “President Obama is eager to seek a bipartisan solution to ensure the long-term solvency of Social Security, . . . ‘What we have done is kicked this can down the road. We are now at the end of the road and are not in a position to kick it any further,’ Mr. Obama said days before his inauguration. ‘We have to signal seriousness in this by making sure some of the hard decisions are made under my watch, not someone else’s.’”—New York Times, 23 February>

Ken G –February 23, 2009

Post Reply