by Julia Robinson
Sometimes dictionary-makers change their minds about the origin of a word, given access to evidence that is new, or newly available. This happened to us recently at the Australian National Dictionary Centre, when a journalist contacted us to ask about the origin and meaning of the Australian phrase to have the wood on. To have the wood on (also to get the wood on) means ‘to have an advantage over (someone)’, and it is used in both Australia and New Zealand.
‘Two out of three ain’t bad was the result from Shark Park on Sunday. The Kawana Dolphins are usually very strong in all grades, but Caloundra had the wood on them this time.’ (Caloundra Weekly, 9 May, 2013)
The first Australian evidence occurs in the 1930s:
Mrs. Leunig denied that she had pulled an iron bar from the baby’s cot and hit him across the shoulders first. She denied also having said to a woman after the alleged assault, ‘I have got the wood on him now. He got my father two years for shooting him, and I will get the – – two years, too.’ (Adelaide Advertiser and Register, 30 April, 1931)
When the term was included as an entry in the Australian National Dictionary (1988), the editors thought it was likely to be derived from two related Australian words, the verb to wooden and the noun woodener. These words predate our phrase by some twenty years, and were therefore in the right time frame to provide an origin.
To wooden means ‘to stun; to make a corpse of (someone)’. It is formed after the British English verb to stiffen, in the sense of ‘to make stiff, as in rigor mortis’, and Australians might recognise it in the exclamation stiffen the crows! A woodener is ‘a knockout blow’.
It seemed likely that ‘the wood’ in the phrase to have the wood on was a figurative allusion to these earlier Australian terms; to have an advantage over someone is, figuratively, to be able to deliver them a knockout blow, or to stun them. So much for the local theory.
The recent query prompted us to take another look at the derivation of this term, and we discovered that further evidence had become available since 1988. Jonathon Green’s Cassell’s Dictionary of Slang (1998) suggests it is an abbreviation of the phrase to get the deadwood on, an American idiom dating from 1851. It means ‘to have a distinct advantage over; to have incontrovertible evidence against’. Other American sources confirm this. (The origin of the term to get the deadwood on is uncertain, although various theories have been suggested. Does it originate in the occupation of logging, or in the game of tenpin bowling, or even in the death of ‘Wild Bill’ Hickok?)
Given that the Australian idiom to have the wood on has the same meaning, the similarity of the two terms is very persuasive. As well, the dating of the first American evidence in the 1850s suggests a way in which to get the deadwood on may have become known in Australia. The decade of the 1850s coincides with the heady days of the goldrushes, which saw Australia’s population swell with migration from all parts of the globe, and which included the movement of goldminers between the Californian and Australian goldfields. As a result there is a significant overlap in goldfields terminology used by miners in both countries, and colloquial expressions unrelated to the business of mining will also have been traded in the melting pot of the goldfields. To get the deadwood on was probably one of them, evolving in Australia into the variant forms to get the wood on and to have the wood on.
On balance it is much more likely that these Australian expressions have their origin in American slang, not Australian, and this change in origin will be reflected in the forthcoming second edition of the Australian National Dictionary.