‘wait and see’: from Prime Minister to friction-matches

The phrase to wait and see means to await the course of events.

Although this phrase was already in usage at that time [cf. note], it gained currency in 1910 from the fact that on Monday 4th April of that year the British Liberal statesman Herbert Henry Asquith (1852-1928), then Prime Minister, repeatedly replied wait and see to a succession of questions in Parliament.

This was reported, on that and the following days, by many British newspapers—for example by The Globe and Traveller (London, England) of 4th April:

IN THE HOUSE.
DENIAL AND DISCOMFITURE.
WAIT AND SEE.”
[…]
(BY OUR SPECIAL REPRESENTATIVE.)

In splendid fighting trim, the Opposition met the Government at question time this afternoon. Mr. Asquith had one of the hottest five minutes even for these days of assaults and alarums. He found himself forced to meet the effective fire of the front and back benches, and he hastily forged a new but ineffectual weapon against the interrogatory artillery of his opponents. He had discarded the old formula; he no longer asks for “notice” of unpleasant and unanswerable questions; he retorts to each one with, “Wait and see.” Not once or twice, but half a dozen times this afternoon that was all he could say to pertinent questions as to the Government’s meanings and the Government’s plans. “Wait and see” […].
[…]
[…] At every fresh question addressed to him, the Prime Minister made more evident the hoplessness [sic] of his position. To Mr. Lawson’s very natural query how the Veto resolutions were to be submitted to the Lords, the Prime Minister’s only answer was “Wait and see”; to Earl Winterton’s request for information regarding the new Budget almost due, there came, in melancholy monotone, “Wait and see.” It was the same in answer to Mr. J. Hope: “Again, I say, wait and see,” and the House laughed hugely—the Opposition in tones of irony, the Government supporters in pretended delight at the new method discovered by their leader to put off the request for inconvenient information, and to stifle the questioner whose posers would not admit of a creditable answer.

John Foster Fraser evoked the sudden popularity of the phrase in Peeps in Parliament. Scenes and Persons in the New House of Commons, published in The Daily Mail (Hull, Yorkshire, England) of Saturday 9th April 1910—there was to be an election the following week:

WAIT AND SEE.”

Well, the humble elector must follow the advice which the Prime Minister has been giving on fifty occasions this week to the persistently-curious young men on the Unionist side of the House. They must “wait and see.” Lesser individuals than politicians have catch phrases such as “I don’t think,” and other intellectual exclamations. The Prime Minister is a phrase-maker. Would the Commons have full opportunity to discuss the Budget again? “Wait and see.” Would the Budget be disposed of before the Government took action in regard to the House of Lords? “Wait and see.” For twenty minutes the other afternoon a crowd of Opposition members peppered the Premier with interrogations concerning procedure during the next week or two. Mr Asquith met them all with a sharp, stereotyped, staccato answer, “Wait and see.” “Wait and see” has become the small change of party interruption. The youngsters have it ever on the tip of their tongues. When a big, dull, pompous individual is solemnly asking the question, “What shall be done in the present situation of affairs?” there comes the thin, squeaky voice of the interrupter, “Wait and see.” Members are like children. This “wait and see” is their new toy. It is their gollywog. They play with it; but next week it will probably be forgotten.

The phrase had become so popular by Saturday 9th April 1910 that the Yorkshire Telegraph and Star (Sheffield, Yorkshire, England) published the following cartoon strip depicting situations in which wait and see might come to be used—its title and legend are:

WAIT AND SEE

Mr Asquith’s now famous utterance promises to become popular — it will probably be given in answer to these people – & others

'wait and see' - Yorkshire Telegraph and Star (Sheffield, Yorkshire, England) - 9 April 1910

On the upper right-hand side, a bearded man says:

Its vurry rewd butt its sure ter bi poplar

In a train station, under a clock reading 10 o’clock, a passenger asks a porter:

What time will the 10 o’clock train be in?

A man asks:

Is Barnsley going to win the cup?

A woman cuddling to a man reading a newspaper asks him:

When are you going to buy me that pearl necklace?

A man wearing a top hat and a monocle asks a bareheaded man holding his hands in his pockets:

Will you lend me that fiver?

A timid employee standing by his boss’s desk says to him:

Ive cum t’ask you if – if you’ll r- raise my s- s- salary sir

On the lower left-hand side, a man wearing a hat and a cape, and carrying papers, is standing in front of the Editor’s door, looking pensively at a sign reading:

WAIT AND SEE

Herbert Henry Asquith came to be nicknamed (old) Wait and See, as exemplified by the following from Things that don’t Matter, by ‘Quidnunc’, published in The Bystander (London, England) of Wednesday 29th December 1915:

Mr. Asquith has confounded his critics. He has given two pledges in clear and absolutely unmistakable language, and it is all Lombard Street to the proverbial orange that he keeps both of them. The one is that he will not leave office and the other that he will draw his full salary.
Dear oldWait and See” must in future be known as “Wait and Receive.”

In the above-quoted 1910 article, John Foster Fraser was mistaken in writing, of the phrase wait and see, that “next week it will probably be forgotten”, since it gave rise during the First World War to two British soldiers’ slang terms, Asquiths and wait and sees, coined to denote French friction-matches, which were notoriously difficult to ignite:

1: Asquiths—as explained in Soldiers’ Wit, published in The Daily Express (Dublin, County Dublin, Ireland) of Monday 9th November 1914:

On the field Thomas Atkins loves his smoke above all things; but even when he can come by tobacco, he finds it hard sometimes to get a light. Those who have travelled in France know to their cost how inefficient is the French match, product of a State monopoly. It must be carefully lit, the flickering blue flame must be nursed for a second or two, and the would-be smoker must wait till it is safely alight before he can venture to apply it to pipe or cigarette. The soldier, with delicious irony, calls French matches “Asquiths,” and even the Premier, one must suppose, need scarce feel any resentment at this tribute to a phrase which he has made his own, “Wait and see.”

2: wait and sees—as evoked in this appeal, published in The Bournemouth Guardian and Hants and Dorset Advertiser (Bournemouth, Hampshire, England) of Saturday 20th February 1915:

Send Matches.
What they want in France as much as anything are matches. Such things out there are very feeble stuff. The French match is a humorous affair. The soldiers call them “Wait and sees,” as they fizzle so long with a breath-taking sulphurous stink before lighting. Matches are a great boon. Tommy has lots of cigarettes. They are the common form of exchange and barter, and we have heard of 100 cigarettes being offered for a box of matches. If matches are sent out they should be tightly packed in a tin case or box, so that there is no rattle, and only safety matches should be sent, of course. The contents of any parcels should be written on it.

 

NoteThe phrase wait and see was, for example, used as the title and leitmotiv of the following poem published in The Mothers’ Companion (London: S. W. Partridge & Co.) of Friday 6th October 1893:

 

WAIT AND SEE.

When my boy with eager questions,
Asking how, and where, and when,
Taxes all my store of wisdom,
Asking o’er and o’er again
Questions oft, to which the answers
Give to others still the key,
I have said, to teach him patience,
Wait, my little boy, and see.”

And the words I taught my darling
Taught to me a lesson sweet:
Once when all the world seemed darkened,
And the storm about me beat,
In the children’s room I heard him,
With a child’s sweet mimicry,
To the baby brother’s questions
Saying wisely, “Wait and see.”

Like an angel’s tender chiming
Came the darling’s words to me,
Comfort to my heart supplying,
Bidding me to wait and see.
What are we but restless children,
Ever asking what shall be?
And the Father in His wisdom
Gently bids us “Wait and see.”