Historically Speaking

Making sense of it all!

Go By The Board

Posted by Elyse Bruce on February 14, 2011

The phrase “go by the board” has fallen out of use, however,at one point, it was quite popular and without a doubt, it’s still an interesting expression, even today. Nautical in nature, the phrase refers to the board of a ship where, when masts of sailing ships  fell over it was said they had go[ne] by the board.

Strangely enough, though, the phrase also has 2 other meanings.  One refers to following the rules of a game while the other refers to bending the law to get what one wants.  Both of these meanings came about as a result of the American indulgence in betting and card playing which was one of many pass times the British colonists brought with them to the New World.

In 1921, American novelist, short story writer, and designer Edith Wharton became the first woman to win the Pulitzer Prize for Literature for her book, “The Age of Innocence.”  The following is included in her book:

He had not to wait a moment for the answer. “To beg you, Monsieur–to beg you with all the force I’m capable of–not to let her go back.–Oh, don’t let her!” M. Riviere exclaimed.

Archer looked at him with increasing astonishment. There was no mistaking the sincerity of his distress or the strength of his determination: he had evidently resolved to let everything go by the board but the supreme need of thus putting himself on record. Archer considered.

“May I ask,” he said at length, “if this is the line you took with the Countess Olenska?”

The phrase is found in The Gettysburg Republican Compiler dated November 1837 wherein it states:

Those banks that do not resume speedily will go by the board.

One of the earliest references to the expression “go by the board” is found in the introduction to the first volume of the Wittenberg Edition of Martin Luther‘s writings back in 1539 wherein he wrote:

I would have been quite content to see my books, one and all, remain in obscurity and go by the board!

Idiomation is unable to find a published version of this phrase earlier than the Martin Luther reference however the ease with which Martin  Luther used the expression indicates that the phrase was common place in the early 1500s and quite possibly before then.

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