AMERICAN ENGLISH: WHO’S ROBBING THIS TRAIN?
In American English, the interrogative phrase who’s robbing this, or the, train? has been used to mean who’s in charge?.
Paul Hauser, Trivia Editor, illustrated this use in his column Nothing Too Small, published in The Oregonian (Portland, Oregon) of Sunday 13th April 1952—he was writing about his dog, Rover:
Who’s mastering who these days, I’d like to know?
I ask these questions:
1. Who’s boss around here?
2. Who’s robbing this train?
3. Who’s top dog here?
I am ashamed to reveal that categorically Rover answers, “I am.”
This is another illustration of this use—from The State Journal-Register (Springfield, Illinois) of Saturday 27th October 1979:
Leroy Irvin, Kansas defensive back, on why he talks to opposing players during the game: “I just want ’em to know who’s robbing the train.”
The phrase who’s robbing this, or the, train? seems to have originated in the often-repeated joke about one or several train robbers who threatened to rob every man on the train, and to kiss every woman: when a male passenger pleaded with the robber(s) to spare the women, an elderly lady turned on him, protesting who’s robbing this train?.
These are the earliest occurrences of this joke that I have found, presented in chronological order:
1-: From The Evening Record (Hackensack, New Jersey) of Monday 11th April 1921:
“Hands up!” rang through the car. The passenger [sic] did as requested.
“I’m going to rob every man in this car of his valuables, and steal a kiss from every lady,” said the robber.
“Why good man,” said a reverend passenger, “rob us gentlemen of our valuables, but do not steal the ladies’ kisses.”
“Say, Mr. Preacher, who’s robbing this train,” came from a spinster.
2-: From the account of the Tenth Annual Convention of the New York State Civil Service Association, published in the Elmira Star-Gazette (Elmira, New York) of Tuesday 6th September 1921:
The first speaker of the evening, President Frank V. Hanavan of the state association […] said no particular party was considered the best friend of the organization but the association had friends in all. He made it clear that the organization was for its friends and efficiency.
Dr. F. L. Christian was the next to have the floor and was at his best. In reply to Mr. Hanavan, Dr. Christian said: “That reminds me of two men who were in the act of robbing a train in the West. One of the robbers was tall and husky and the other a frail man. The larger suggested taking the men’s money and kissing the women but the smaller of the two protested and said not to kiss the women. Thereupon an elderly woman, evidently unmarried, said, ‘Young man, who’s robbing this train?’” Mr. Hanavan joined the others in the applause which followed.
3-: From Pithy Paragraphs, consisting of jokes contributed by readers, published in the Harrisburg Telegraph (Harrisburg, Pennsylvania) of Tuesday 6th February 1923:
OH! THOSE OLD MAIDS
A robber once held up a train and a preacher who was riding on it came out to try to bring about peaceful means.
Bandit: “Ye can’t change our ideas, we’re agoin’ to kiss all the women and take all the men’s valuables.”
Preacher: “Now, kind sir, consider—”
Old Maid (who had heard conversation): “Hey! who’s robbing this train?”—GEORGETTE.
In some later versions of the joke, the train robber is identified as the U.S. outlaw Jesse James (1847-1882)—the following, for example, is from The Gag Bag, by Larry Wolters, published in The Miami Herald (Miami, Florida) of Sunday 26th August 1962:
Art James 1 recalls the one about Jesse James and the train robbery. Jesse said: “Stick ’em up! All I want is a kiss from every lady.” A young woman protested: “You’re not going to kiss that old woman. Why she’s 95 years old.” The old woman looked up and protested: “Who’s robbing this train, you or Jesse?”
1 Art James (Arthur Simeonovich Efimchick – 1929-2004) was a U.S. television game-show host.
AUSTRALIAN ENGLISH: WHO’S ROBBING THIS COACH?
The Australian-English interrogative phrase who’s robbing this coach?, which has been used to mean mind your own business!, is based on a similar joke—as evoked by Robert Wilson in his column As it was, published in The Canberra Times (Canberra, Australian Capital Territory) of Saturday 13th October 1990:
Bill Wannan 2 in one of his books on Australian folklore, discusses the origin of that classic Australian challenge, “Who’s robbing this coach?” meaning “Mind your own business”.
He tells the story that Ned Kelly 3 once robbed a mail coach and ordered all the passengers to line up along the fence.
Then he announced that he was going to rob all the men and kiss all the ladies.
A gallant young fellow, determined to defend the honour of the ladies, said, “You scoundrel. Leave the women alone.” A middle-aged spinster broke in and said, “Mind your own business, young man. Who’s robbing this coach, you or Mr Kelly?”
It is a marvellous story but Wilkes in his Dictionary of Australian Colloquialisms 4 dismisses it on the grounds that Ned Kelly never robbed any mail coaches.
2 Bill Wannan (1915-2003) was the author of books such as The Australian: Yarns, Ballads, Legends, and Traditions of the Australian People (Melbourne: Australasian Book Society, 1954).
3 Edward ‘Ned’ Kelly (circa 1855-1880) was an Australian bushranger.
4 A Dictionary of Australian Colloquialisms (Sydney: Sydney University Press, 1978), by Gerald Alfred Wilkes (1927-2020)
The Australian joke seems to have been adapted from the American one, since the Australian phrase who’s robbing this coach? is first recorded in print in the early 1940s only, two decades after the American phrase who’s robbing this train?.
The earliest occurrence of who’s robbing this coach? that I have found is from Manoeuvres, a short story by F. J. Gilbert, published in The Western Mail (Perth, Western Australia) of Thursday 1st April 1943—however, in this specific context, the phrase could be interpreted as meaning who’s in charge?:
The Command Post was becoming impatient. The BC 5 was on the phone again, seeking information.
“[…] Any sign of enemy movement?” He was almost pathetic in his eagerness.
“Nothing to report at all, sir.”
This was too much. “Nothing to report be damned! There must be something doing. Why, it’s after 1600 hrs. Keep your eyes peeled, man! Report any unusual occurrence immediately. A moving bush can hide a platoon of men. A flock of birds, rising suddenly, may give away the position of a Company. Blast it all man! I’ve got to have some tactical information to show the Brig when he arrives. Finished.”
“Finished,” repeated the OPO 6 mechanically, murderous rage welling in his heart. He glared at the unoffending O Pip Ack 7. “Moving bushes! Flying birds! Bah! Text book stuff. Who’s observing for this battery! Who—who’s robbing this coach . . .”
5 BC: Battery Commander
6 OPO: O Pip Officer – from O Pip: Observation Post
7 O Pip Ack: OPO’s assistant
The second-earliest occurrence of who’s robbing this coach? that I have found is from A Popular Dictionary of Australian Slang (Melbourne: Robertson & Mullens, 1943), by Sidney John Baker (1912-1976), as quoted by Art Cohn (1909-1958), then International News Service columnist in the South Pacific, in an article about the idioms that the U.S. soldier was picking up from his British and Australian comrades-in-arms—article published in several U.S. newspapers on Monday 12th July 1943, for example in the Alabama Journal (Montgomery, Alabama):
Who’s robbing this coach?—Mind your own business.
Significantly, Sidney John Baker did not mention Ned Kelly when he explained who’s robbing this coach? in The Australian Language (Sydney and London: Angus and Robertson Ltd, 1945):
Reputed to be associated with bushranging days, this expression is equivalent to “mind your own business!”
The precise acceptation of the phrase is unclear in the following cartoon, published in The News (Adelaide, South Australia) of Wednesday 8th January 1947—Income Tax, Indirect Taxes and Rising Prices are depicted as three outlaws robbing a coach; on the side of the road, while one of the outlaws is looking inside an empty bag reading Wages, a passenger, standing naked in a barrel with his arms stretched out, asks:
“WHO’S ROBBING THIS COACH?”