Jeremy Butterfield Editorial

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On the spur of the moment. Or in the spur of the moment? An idiom in motion?

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Lesedauer: 6 m


I don’t usually do things on the spur of the moment.

Do you?

Life’s generally too complicated and busy to allow for spontaneity. Things have to be planned. (If you go by Myers-Briggs], I’m a tight-arsed ‘J’, not a go-with-the-flow ‘P’. Though some might say I’m half-arsed…)

But, even less do I do them in the spur of the moment.

But, here’s the thing: writing this blog was an almost ‘spur-of-the-moment’ decision. I was only prompted to write it last night, Friday, and here I am writing it on a Saturday (and forward-posting it for a Tuesday). Why I’m writing it at all will soon become clear.

In?!?! the spur of the moment

The idiom is engraved on my brain since who knows when as ‘on the spur of the moment’. So you could have knocked me down with a feather (1853) when an amiable and puppishly enthusiastic BBC music presenter came out with ‘in the spur of the moment’ in a Proms interview. Shurely shome mishtake, I thought.

Well, yes and no. ‘Yes’, because it is not the canonical, dictionary-guaranteed preposition, and prepositions in idioms tend to be ‘set in stone’ at any given point in time. But ‘no’, because it is not a one-off or a tlip of the songue.

For example, if you google “in the spur of the moment” with quotation marks, you get ‘about 20,400’ results.

Among them you discover that there is a 2000 jazz album called ‘In the Spur of the Moment,’ which suggests that that form of the phrase was already well established by the millennium.

You will also find a discussion on the useful WordReference Forums going back to 2005; in discussing a different phrase, several posters take ‘in the spur of the moment’ for granted, while another says he uses ‘at’ ‘…but I don’t think it really matters. In, at, on, the meaning is there with all of them’.

(Clearly a Myers-Briggs ‘P’. One wonders if he is similarly cavalier about spelling.)

In contrast, googling “on the spur of the moment” retrieves about 1,210,000 hits.

If you look at iWEB, the carefully structured 14-billion-word BYU corpus, you find 228 for ‘in the spur of the moment’ but 1662 for ‘on the spur of the moment’, an 88/12 per cent split. The NOW corpus (6 billion words from news sites) shows 122 ‘in’ from all round the anglosphere, and 826 for ‘on’, a spookily similar 87/13 per cent split.

Why the change?

This is purely guesswork. First, at least for me, the metaphor is not entirely dead. Therefore, ‘on’ makes sense, given that in the background there is a physical spur involved, which something can be on, but not in. However, I (possibly rashly) presume for many in the ‘in’ crowd the metaphor is dead and buried. Certainly, for those online who ask what it means, it must be long under ground.

And if the metaphor is dead, then analogy plays its part, the analogy I am thinking of being ‘in the heat of the moment’.

In other words, you get a blidiom (blend idiom) of on the spur of/in the heat of + the moment.

This is then perhaps reinforced by the highly frequent use of ‘in’ in other time-related phrases, e.g. in the nick of time; in five minutes/an hour/a day, etc.; in the morning/afternoon, etc.; in 1885; in the twentieth etc. century; in recent days/weeks/years; in the last/next few days.

I won’t go on; you get the picture.

If my hunch is correct, the frequency of ‘in’ overrides any parallelism with phrases such as ‘on impulse’, ‘on a whim’, in which ‘on’ is used to mean something like, as the OED puts it, ‘Indicating the basis or reason of an action, opinion, etc.; having as a motive’.

What strikes me as unusual is the prepositional shift in an idiom. However, if historical ‘all on a sudden’ can become ‘all of a sudden’, why shouldn’t ‘on the spur…’ become ‘in the spur…’?

For the moment, though, the editors I’ve asked would definitely change ‘in’ to ‘on’.

What follows delves into the history of the phrase, courtesy of the OED.

On the spur of the moment
What does it mean?

As Cobuild neatly defines it, ‘if you do something on the spur of the moment, you do it suddenly, without planning it beforehand’.

That gets the two elements of suddenness and absence of planning.

The example is They admitted they had taken a vehicle on the spur of the moment.

Which sounds about right for the mindset of joyriders.

Why ‘spur’ of the moment’?

These days I suspect lots of people ‘out there’ (note to self: a blog about ‘out there’ is overdue) don’t know what a spur is. (I’m sure you’re not one of them, gentle reader.) Or if they do, they think it’s something to do with football, Spurs being the nickname of the English football team Tottenham Hotspur.

For the enlightenment of such, a spur is:

A device for pricking the side of a horse in order to urge it forward, consisting of a small spike or spiked wheel attached to the rider’s heel.

Self-evidently, such a barbaric piece of equipment has no place in our enlightened age, but, in days of old, when knights were bold… (complete ad libitum), great store was set on having rather spectacular ones. And even later, for example, Argentine gauchos wore them.

Here’s a rather fancy set of gaucho spurs.

And further down, there’s a picture showing a rather foppish St George sporting a spectacular pair… of spurs, that is.

The word spur goes back to Old English: the OED’s ‘origin’ rubric describes it as ‘a word inherited from Germanic’, which almost makes it sound as if we should somehow treasure it, like great-grandmama’s locket.

From medieval times it seemed ripe for metaphorical use. First, as the OED puts it, ‘In various prepositional or elliptical phrases denoting speed, haste, eagerness, etc.’

Chaucer used it thus in c1374:

Tristith wele that I Wole be her champioun with spore and yerd.

(Trust well, I will be to her champion with whip and with spur)
Troilus & Criseyde ii. 1427

And the Bard also:   You haue made shift to run into’t, bootes and spurres and all.
a1616, All’s Well that ends Well (1623) ii. v. 36

On the spur

The next development was, as defined by the OED, into a semi-fixed phrase:

on (also upon) the (†spurs or) spur (also †upon spur), at full speed, in or with the utmost haste, in literal or figurative use.’

First recorded in Berners/Froissart:
Whan we be in the feldes, lette vs ryde on the spurres to Gaunte.
1525, Cronycles II. viii. 18

But used as late as Tennyson:

And there, All wild to found an University For maidens, on the spur she fled.
1847, Princess i. 19

This use is not marked with the funereal obelus (†) to show that it is obsolete, but surely it is (the OED entry dates to 1915).

In addition, spur on its own came to be used from the sixteenth century onwards to mean ‘incentive, stimulus, incitement’:

I professe to be but..a spurre or a whet stone, to sharpe the pennes of some other.
1551, T. Wilson Rule of Reason sig. Aiiijv

Praise and honour are spurres to virtue.
a1593, H. Smith Serm. (1637) 585

Pisanello, Apparition of the Virgin to Sts Antony and George, 1445, National Gallery, London. Detail.

On the spur of the moment

It was not until the nineteenth century that on the spur of the moment arose:

Volunteers, with a party of the Surrey cavalry, attended and prevented the populace in general from taking that step, which, perhaps, the best feelings of human nature had, upon the spur of the moment dictated.

1801   Ann. Reg. 1799 (Otridge ed.) ii. Chron. 27/1

But even then it was not ‘set in stone.’ The preposition could be upon (ok, it’s ‘the same as’ on, only more formal), and the second noun could be occasion:

He carried me home on the spur of the occasion.

1809, B. H. Malkin tr. A. R. Le Sage Adventures Gil Blas I. ii. iii. 194

And Carlyle took it even further:

The Church..has been consecrated, by supreme decree, on the spur of this time, into a Pantheon.

1837   T. Carlyle French Revol. II. iii. vii. 199

The first attributive use of the phrase came in the mid-twentieth century:

Toppy is tops at spur-of-the-moment tactics.

1948, C. Day Lewis Otterbury Incident viii. 94

Google Ngrams suggests how the form with occasion has fallen out of fashion; the batch of citations seemingly dated 1883-2000 are from antique works, e.g. Jeremy Bentham.

In all of them, however, the preposition is ‘on’. The Hansard Corpus and the Corpus of Historical American English show the same.

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Author: Jeremy Butterfield

Editor of Fowler's Dictionary of Modern English Usage. Writer, wordsmith, copywriter, copy-editor and lover of words. I provide editing, web copywriting, and marketing copywriting services in the Central Belt of Scotland, including Stirling, Glasgow, Edinburgh and surrounding areas, as well as throughout the UK. You can find me on Twitter @JezzB2.

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