Historically Speaking

Making sense of it all!

Give Someone The Gears

Posted by Elyse Bruce on August 26, 2013

Believe it or not, to give someone the gears means to harass or pester someone, usually in a teasing way, but not always. It’s a Canadian expression that shows up primarily in Canadian newspapers, but making some headway in American newspapers in the northern states in the past decade.

Every once in a while, the Globe and Mail will run a humorous essay by Kevin Bray. On July 26, 2011 the article “My Dog Has Seriously Cramped My Style” had readers howling at the author’s predicament. Being the proud owner of a poodle, this entailed the grooming that’s part and parcel of poodledom including the pantaloon-style legs and lion-style mane haircut. He told the story of an ornery old gent who made an unkind remark about his adorable canine and what followed was a defence of his dog against the cruelty of a human.

However, my confidence in the combined intelligence of two species – homo sapiens and canine – blinded me to the prescient wisdom of an old man that sunny day who got out of his boat-like car, looked straight at me and loudly pronounced, “Glad I don’t have a dog. It would cramp my style!”

I don’t know why I reacted, but I responded just as crankily, “What style?”

He harrumphed and tottered into the coffee shop without another word. I think I gave him the gears because I was worried that he had a vision of my future.

Ottawa Sun reporter Bruce Garrioch wrote an article entitled, “Heatley’s Pointed In Right Direction” where the possibility of Senators winger tying the NHL record for scoring in consecutive games that had been held by Wayne Gretzky since 1988 was palpable. The article stated in part:

Seriously, the former Atlanta Thrasher would be thrilled to put his name in the record book. His teammates have been giving him the gears about it, but the chase to equal Gretzky and beat his mark has created a lot of excitement.

On January 13, 1983 the Calgary Herald published a story out of Ottawa written by Charles Lynch and entitled, “Venom Boils When PM, Press Hit The Road.” He started the article off by stating that every few years, the longest running hate show on the international stage went on a road trip, and the main characters of this show were members of the national press corps and certain politicians.

The idea of politicians abroad being objects of abuse took hold in our media circles — so much so that when Joe Clark went traipsing around the world as Tory leader, a whole bunch of press people went along with him, and gave him the gears. Clark was polite to the press, but they wimped him anyway, leaving his image with scars that have never healed.

Because it’s such a recent addition to the English language, and because it was used to easily in the 1983 article, it’s safe to say that the expression dates back to about 1975 for it to make its way into the general lexicon by the time Charles Lynch made use of the expression.

And a Canadian expression at that! A first on the Idiomation blog that’s for sure!

2 Responses to “Give Someone The Gears”

  1. Al Caron said

    I don’t know about that 1975 date; my father, WWII veteran, used to use that expression back as far as I can remember, and I’m 60 years old now…..

    • Hello Al, and welcome to “Idiomation: Historically Speaking.” While I don’t doubt that you believe your father used the expression as far back as you can remember (this would be at least 1960), Idiomation hasn’t found an earlier published version of the expression. If you’re able to provide a link to an earlier published version, that would be fantastic as this blog strives to provide factual information to readers, and sometimes it takes readers to find missing links most can’t find.

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