meaning and origin of the phrase ‘to dodge the column’

The British-English colloquial phrase to dodge the column means to avoid work, to shirk one’s duty.

It originated in military slang during the First World War, the word column denoting a formation of marching soldiers.

The earliest instance that I have found is from The Gazette (Montreal, Quebec) of Saturday 25th March 1916, which published “some clever and amusing verses sent by Q.M.S.1 R. N. Lyon, of the 24th Battalion, Victoria Rifles”:

The Rubaiyat2 of Thomas Atkins3.
Done into (bad) English by the Q.M.S.

Ah, leave the wise to drill and show of arms,
To bombing with its numerous noisy charms.
But just to “dodge the column” is my aim—
The word “fatigue” can cause us dire alarms.

A footnote explained that dodge the column means:

Get out of doing work.

1 Q.M.S.: Quartermaster Sergeant
2 rubaiyat: in Persian poetry, a verse form consisting of four-line stanzas
3 Thomas Atkins: a generic name for a British private soldier

The second-earliest instance that I have found is from The Mid-Ulster Mail (Cookstown, Ireland) of Saturday 5th August 1916:

The Twelfth in the Balkans.
How Mid Ulster Soldiers Celebrated the Day.

The Orangemen of Cookstown, Dungannon and locality, with the Allied Forces at Salonika, determined that the Anniversary of the Boyne4 should not pass without some celebration. Accordingly a meeting was organised under the shadow of a huge chestnut tree near Salonika, where not only the Orange soldiers, but many of their Catholic comrades, asembled [sic] under the presidency of Br. Thomas Campbell.
Private Gallagher, of Letterkenny, who was introduced as a Nationalist comrade, rendered in fine style, “The Star of Donegal.”
Private M. Gates, Dungannon, gave a stump speech entitled, “How to dodge the column,” which created roars of laughter and applause.

4 the Battle of the Boyne: a battle fought near the River Boyne in Ireland in 1690, in which the Protestant army of William of Orange, the newly crowned William III, defeated the Catholic army led by the recently deposed James II; celebrated annually on 12th July in Northern Ireland as a victory for the Protestant cause

The earliest non-military instance that I have found of to dodge the column in the generic sense of to avoid work is from a comment on the manifesto that the Independent Labour Party had just issued, published in the Lincolnshire Echo (Lincoln, Lincolnshire) of Tuesday 20th March 1923:

It must be admitted that there is, at least, a reasonable case to be made out for the State as universal employer and provider. The idea that the general community, as represented by the State, should own, manage, and work the whole business of the country, and equally divide the proceeds of its labour has, indeed, something so idealistic in its conception that it must appeal to everyone, to some extent, in theory. The trouble is that frail human nature, as at present constituted, could never live up to such an idealistic system. One can imagine the scheme working perfectly in Heaven. But on Earth it must eventuate in a perpetual scramble of all classes and individuals to dodge the column when work is being allocated, and to be in the front rank at pay parade.

I have also found early transferred uses of to dodge the column; in the London Letter, published in The Daily Mail (Hull, Yorkshire) of Saturday 10th August 1918, the phrase means to avoid a physical constraint:


Some of the American surgeons, who are gaining an invaluable experience and doing much admirable work in our military hospitals, can tell amusing tales of the happy-go-lucky, devil-may-care disposition of our wounded Tommies. The American surgeons usually agree that the most reckless patients of all are the Jocks. It is no easy job, and one calling for great tact in the case of medical officers who do not wear the British uniform, to get these hardy Northern warriors to carry out orders. It often occurs that some special form of splint is ordered for a patient, of which the latter violently disapproves, either because it causes a certain amount of physical discomfort or curtails his joyous activities. I heard the other day of a case in which the wounded Jock concerned, who had full use of his legs and was having a high old time about town, was given an arm splint—a bulky contrivance for holding the injured limb away from the body. Jock objected as well as he could, and tried in vain to “dodge the column,” but finally surrendered with suspiciously good grace. He would sail away to town with his splint all correct, and return in similar good order. It was quite an accident that one day led to a discovery. It turned out that Jock made as a regular thing straight for the local railway station, and there at the left luggage office calmly deposited the inconvenient surgical appliance.

5 Jock: a Scotsman

Another early transferred use of to dodge the column is from the Daily Herald (London) of Wednesday 30th March 1921, which published an interview of Henry Stuart Wheatley-Crowe, “the moving spirit in the Royal Martyr Church Union6—the phrase means to escape a serious danger:

“The Union exerted itself and brought pressure to bear on the Foreign Office on behalf of the Russian Royal Family and safe conduct for the Dowager Empress of Russia at that degrading period of Bolshevik insanity and crime.”
Henry doesn’t say so, but it is nice to remember that the Dowager Empress (Alexandra’s sister) managed to dodge the column on a British destroyer.
The Russian Royal Family, on the other hand, seems to have been unlucky. In spite of the Royal Martyr Church Union, they seem to have been murdered by the brutal Bolsheviks in half-a-dozen different ways and places.

6 Henry Stuart Wheatley-Crowe explained in the article that the aim of the Royal Martyr Church Union is the “restoration of our historic constitution, and those greater principles in Church and State for which King Charles the Martyr gave his life”.

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