‘not to put a foot wrong’: meaning and origin

The phrase not, or never, to put a foot wrong means to make no mistakes at all.

This phrase occurs, for example, in the review of The Marriage of Figaro, by the Austrian composer Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756-1791), produced at the Savoy Theatre, London—review by George Hall, published in The Stage (London, England) of Thursday 22nd April 2004:

Gideon Davey’s sets provide an apt background against which the company can execute its precisely articulated manoeuvres. Matthew Richardson’s production, graced by Emma Ryott’s flawless period costumes and magically lit by Giuseppe di Iorio, does not put a foot wrong in leading us through the whirlwind of events in the Almaviva household.

The texts containing the earliest occurrences of not, or never, to put a foot wrong that I have found indicate that this phrase was originally used of racehorses and hunting horses—these texts are as follows, in chronological order:

1-: The account of the Grand National Hunt Steeple-chase, published in the Sporting Gazette (London, England) of Saturday 9th April 1864:

Mr. Bevill, from having taken good measure of his opponents, had booked winning a certainty, as his mare was full of running, and had never put a foot wrong.

2-: The account of the Liverpool Cup, published in the Sporting Gazette (London, England) of Saturday 9th November 1867:

The winner, who did not put a foot wrong, has a nasty way of tossing her head, and in her quasi walk over she hit her rider, Mr. R. Walker, over the right eye, and inflicted an ugly cut, from which the blood flowed freely for some minutes.

3-: The account of the Grand National Hunt Steeple-chase, published in the Sporting Gazette (London, England) of Saturday 4th April 1868:

It was reduced to a match between Tathwell and Father O’Leary, who jumped the last fence but one abreast; and it was here that Tathwell, who never put a foot wrong previously, slightly stumbled, owing to there being a small grip on the landing side.

4-: Earl Fitzwilliam’s Hounds, by ‘H. H.’, published in The Field, The Farm, The Garden, The Country Gentleman’s Newspaper (London, England) of Saturday 3rd April 1869:

I complained in my first Yorkshire article of the difficulty of getting a horse fit to carry a man to hounds; through the kindness of the Hon. E. Lascelles, who recommended me to go to Mr Cowper, I was afterwards able to remedy this, and secure one horse for the season, that over all these countries (and they nearly all require doing in a different style) never put a foot wrong with me.

5-: Leicestershire, by ‘our special correspondent’, published in The Field, The Farm, The Garden, The Country Gentleman’s Newspaper (London, England) of Saturday 1st April 1871:

The half-hour up to the point of stoppage was all the real fun—and good indeed it was, with plenty of pace, plenty of jumping, and plenty of quick sterling hunting. I may add that no one rode straighter, or saw the run better, than did Mrs Henry, on a clever flier that seems as if he could not put a foot wrong.

6-: The Bedale in the Kennel, and a Visit to Lambton and the Miner, by ‘our Wandering Correspondent’, published in the Sporting Gazette (London, England) of Saturday 23rd September 1871:

We are pleased to see Thatcher, who we knew years ago when he was toiling amidst the bogs, woods, and banks of South Berks, as a promising young hand, promoted to the horn. From Mr. Hargreaves he went as first whip to Nimrod Long, at Brocklesby, where he soon became a general favourite, and was noticed for his quickness, activity, and fine horsemanship; and we have heard it said that he never left a hound behind him. When mounted on Zigzag, which “flyer,” we believe, he took over his first fence, and then finished a fine run on him (before he could get at the horse destined for him on the day,) during which the brown never turned his head or put a foot wrong, he was very hard to catch, and we have seen him go “like steam” on an old chesnut [sic] mare.

7-: The account of the steeplechases at Birmingham, Warwickshire, published in Bell’s Life in London and Sporting Chronicle (London, England) of Saturday 17th February 1872:

As St Valentine had been on the shelf since the Grand National last year, the majority of the public preferred the chance of Reugny, whose refusal yesterday was, however, not generally known. He never put a foot wrong to day, and, clearing his fences like a bird, he settled Titterstone the instant he was let out.

8-: Sporting Intelligence, published in The Freeman’s Journal (Dublin, County Dublin, Ireland) of Thursday 26th December 1872:

As soon as the new year’s nominations are in print, the Liverpool Grand National will become an event of much interest, and already six or seven have been mentioned for the great jumping contest. These are Cinderella, Casse Tete (the last heroine), Acton, Schiedam, Mars, and Scipio, of whom the first named was thought a real good thing on the last occasion by the Hednesford people. I am bound to confess also that she was running well when she came to grief rather less than a mile and a half from home, and never put a foot wrong until she was interfered with.

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