Kicking the can down the road

During a brief lull between federal financial crises, a look at the vocabulary of playing for time.

If there was an idiom that got a workout during the US government shutdown last month, it was "kicking the can down the road."

The agreement that got the lights turned back on in mid-October was widely described as "only kicking the can down the road." It would defer the hard work of decision to another day.

As idioms go, kicking a can down the road is pretty WYSIWYG (what you see is what you get). It suggests a boy on some favorite long way home from school, kicking away at a battered soda-pop can until he realizes he's knocked it all the way to his front door.

The national political conversation has been stuck on this particular trope for a few years now.

In the waning days of 2011, it got to be too much for Will Femia of "The Rachel Maddow Show" on cable TV. He blogged, "This 'kick the can down the road' phrase is killing me." He clearly saw a reference to the children's game known as "kick the can" blended with a completely different idiom, "to kick something down the road."

He insisted: "In American English we can kick something down the road, and we can play kick the can, but 'kick the can down the road' is not a thing."

He reinforced his point with a bit of embedded video on how to play "kick the can." It's described as an "urban variant" of hide and seek, in which – instead of tagging a tree or some other "base" to signify "home safe" – the players kick over a large empty can, typically a gallon-sized paint can.

Mr. Femia's may be a minority view, though. Here's what the English-usage website Grammarist says:

"Kick the can down the road, a ubiquitous phrase in American politics over the last few years, is not a reference to the game of kick the can. It refers to the practice of kicking a can ahead of oneself while walking along a road. So, metaphorically, the phrase means to defer conclusive action with a short-term solution."

Appropriately, the usage examples quoted come from politicians, including one from Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel, apropos of his own city's finances: "We can't kick the can down the road because we've run out of road."

There's a British idiom that some see as related here: "to kick something into the long grass." The Oxford Advanced Learner's Dictionary defines this as "to reject, remove or stop dealing with a problem."

Ah, but there's a difference between "the long grass" – where the "problem" is inaccessible – and the road, where the "problem" is still in view, and will be caught up with again in just a few steps. Which is perhaps the case to be made for kicking the can down the road.

The same 2011 fiscal crisis that inspired Femia also prompted John L. Smith of the Las Vegas Review-Journal to columnize under the headline: "Dithering politicians can do a lot worse than kick the can."

Describing himself as a child as "an unrepentant road-can kicker," he noted, "The kicking usually ended with a scuffed sneaker and a stubbed toe, but the can served its purpose. It distracted me from throwing rocks, poking a pal with a sharp stick or shouting a tepid obscenity at a neighbor kid. In short, that can kept me moving and out of trouble."

Indeed.

And much better to kick the can than the bucket.

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