The phrase from pillar to post means from one place to another in an unceremonious or fruitless manner.
Its earliest recorded form is from post to pillar in The Assembly of Gods, an anonymous dream-vision allegory most likely written in the early fourth quarter of the 15th century (it was initially attributed to John Lydgate (1370-1449) and dated 1420):
Whyche doon, he hym sent [= sent him] to Contrycion.
And fro thensforth to Satysfaccion.
Thus fro poost to pylour was he made to daunce,
And at the last he went forthe to Penaunce.
Rhyming constructions with tost (= tossed) seem to have motivated the change to from pillar to post, which is first attested in Vox Populi vox Dei, an anonymous poem written in the first half of the 16th century:
From piller vnto post
The powr man he was tost.
But there are examples of from post to pillar well into the 21st century, and the two forms have sometimes been used conjointly for emphasis. For example, a journalist of The Yorkshire Gazette of 2nd October 1819 wrote that The York Herald
driven from “pillar to post,” and from post to pillar has at length come to a complete stand-still.
PROBABLE ORIGIN OF THE PHRASE:
“FROM THE SAME TO THE SAME”
In A dialogue conteynyng the number of the effectuall prouerbes in the Englishe tounge, compact in a matter concernynge two maner of maryages (1562), the English author John Heywood (circa 1497-circa 1580) wrote:
And from post to pyller wyfe, I have béene tost
By that surfet [= surfeit].
And one of the Three hundred Epigrammes, vpon three hundred prouerbes published that year by the same author is:
Of poste and pyller.
Tost from post to pyller, thou art a pyller stronge,
And thou hast byn a pyller sum [= some] say to [= too] longe.
In his 1906 edition of Heywood’s proverbs and epigrams, John S. Farmer wrote, about from post to pillar:
hither and thither, with aimless effort or action: literally, from the same to the same—pillar = Latin columna = post.
Farmer quotes The Two Noble Kinsmen (circa 1613), attributed to the English playwrights William Shakespeare (1564-1616) and John Fletcher (1579-1625):
And, dainty Duke, whose doughty dismal fame
From Dis to Daedalus, from post to pillar,
Is blown abroad.
Dis is the god of the underworld, Daedalus the builder of the Cretan labyrinth; these words are used mainly for their alliteration.
That the English phrase from pillar to post means from the same to the same seems to be confirmed by the following from A New Dictionary of the Terms Ancient and Modern of the Canting Crew, In its several Tribes, of Gypsies, Beggers, Thieves, Cheats, &c. with An Addition of some Proverbs, Phrases, Figurative Speeches, &c. (1699), by “B. E. Gent.”:
From Pillar to Post, from Constable to Constable.
This idea is also present in some of the equivalent phrases in other languages:
– In Spanish, the phrase andar, or ir, de Herodes a Pilatos, literally means to walk, or to go, from Herod to Pilate.
– In German, the phrase von Pontius zu Pilatus laufen, or gehen, etc., literally means to run, or to go, etc., from Pontius to Pilate.
Pontius and Pilate are of course the same person: the Roman procurator of Judea in the New Testament. These phrases refer to the gospel of Luke, 23:
(New International Version)
Jesus before Herod
6 On hearing this, Pilate asked if the man was a Galilean. 7 When he learned that Jesus was under Herod’s jurisdiction, he sent him to Herod, who was also in Jerusalem at that time.
And an obsolete French equivalent of the English phrase is renvoyer quelqu’un d’Hérode (or de Caïphe) à Pilate, literally to send back somebody from Herod (or from Caiaphas) to Pilate – Caïphe, Caiaphas in English, is the Jewish high priest in the New Testament.
(Cf. also the phrase since Pontius was a pilot.)
Similarly, the Dutch equivalent phrase is van het kastje naar de muur sturen, to send from the cupboard to the wall – i.e. from one object to a similar one.
The phrase is often thought to be a metaphor from the bouncing and rebounding of the ball in real tennis. In A Concise Dictionary of Phrase and Fable (1993), B. A. Phythian wrote:
Usually thought to be from real (royal) tennis, an old indoor version of the game, which involves toing and froing as pillar to post may imply: pillar and post were features of the court and may have figured in a technical term for a certain type of shot.
For example, the expression was explicitly associated with tennis in A pleasant comedie, shewing the contention betweene liberalitie and prodigalitie (1602), a morality play by an unknown author:
Continuall vnrest must be thy destinie:
Ech day, ech houre, yea, euery minute tost,
Like to a tennis ball, from piller to post.
However, this might be a pun on the pre-existing phrase tossed from pillar to post.
The supposition that the phrase is linked with tennis was first made by Sir James Murray, during his editing of the Oxford English Dictionary, in Notes and Queries (December 1905):
The original form of this expression was ‘from post to pillar.’ Of the twenty-two quotations between 1420 (Lydgate) and 1700 now before me, seventeen have the original and five the later form, three of the latter being in verse, and having ‘post’ riming with ‘tost,’ ‘tossed,’ which was apparently the ‘fons et origo’ [= ‘source and origin’ in Latin] of the transposition … May I throw out the conjecture … that the game in which there was a chance of something being tossed from post to pillar was tennis?
However, in the above-mentioned dictionary, B. A. Phythian disagrees:
But the expression is ancient (at least early 15th century) and more common than one would expect of a phrase originating in limited aristocratic circles. For these reasons, it may well have come rather from the medieval punishment of the pillory (pillar) and whipping-post; these were more in the public domain than real tennis and imply greater inconvenience.
B. A. Phythian’s theory would better account for the original order from post to pillar, as an offender would first be taken to the whipping-post, then to the pillory. Neither from post to pillar nor from pillar to post appears in A Collection of English Proverbs (1670), by John Ray (1627-1705), but the following does:
To be tost from post to pillory.
And, in the USA, during the Civil War, a certain William E. Lane wrote to his mother on 22d March 1864:
I embrace this opportunity of writing a fieu [few] lines to you. My health since this war commenced has bin injured very much. I have bin drove from post to pillory, my bed for the last three years has bin most of the [time] on the cold ground.
Additionally, in English Proverbs and Proverbial Phrases (1907), William Carew Hazlitt recorded both phrases:
From pillar to post (or post to pillar).
From [whipping] post to pillory.
Whether the phrase, From pillar to post, is a corruption of this, or an independent saying, it is difficult to say, more especially as From post to pillar is in Heywood, 1562.