Fell Off the Back of a Truck – Origin & Meaning

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Danielle McLeod

Danielle McLeod is a highly qualified secondary English Language Arts Instructor who brings a diverse educational background to her classroom. With degrees in science, English, and literacy, she has worked to create cross-curricular materials to bridge learning gaps and help students focus on effective writing and speech techniques. Currently working as a dual credit technical writing instructor at a Career and Technical Education Center, her curriculum development surrounds student focus on effective communication for future career choices.

Fell off the back of a truck means that an item was likely acquired in a shady or illegal manner, often suggesting it may be stolen. The phrase is especially common in American and Australian English and made its print debut in the early 20th century. 

The expression is an idiom, which is a phrase that might have started with a literal meaning but is now used figuratively to add flair or clarity to what someone is saying. While idioms can be confusing for those learning English or for people who prefer straightforward language, they can also be entertaining and provide links from historical meanings to current ways of speaking.

Read on to learn more about the idiom fell off the back of a truck and how you can use it in your writing.

Understanding Fell Off the Back of the Truck Meaning

Fell Off the Back of a Truck – Origin Meaning

Fell off the back of a truck is an idiomatic phrase that refers to something stolen or obtained illegally and often sold at a large discount. Nowadays, people use this phrase to express doubt about the legitimacy of an item’s source or to comment on its questionable quality.

For example:

  • I’m not sure where she bought that bike, but it looks like it fell off the back of a truck.
  • With a price that low, your new laptop probably fell off the back of a truck; that’s an amazing bargain!

Fell Off the Back of the Truck Origins

The phrase seems to have originated primarily in American and Australian English, as the British term for a truck is a “lorry.”

Although the idiom initially referred to stolen goods, its first documented appearance in a figurative sense can be traced back to a debate in the Australian House of Representatives in 1929. The statement made was:

“We heard, through something that had fallen off the back of a truck onto a reporter’s table.”

By 1937, the phrase popped up in an American newspaper, The Selma-Times Journal, which described people in Manhattan getting swindled by “chauffeurs” claiming to have discounted bolts of cloth that “fell off the back of a truck.”

The British equivalent, involving a ‘lorry,’ didn’t appear in print until the 1960s in The Times:

“The suggestion of the finder, a casual motorist, that the records ‘must have fallen off the back of a lorry’.”

Like many idioms, it’s likely that the phrase was in use orally before being recorded in print, either in its literal or figurative sense. Its connection to theft and shady dealings seems well established, hinting that the practice itself might have existed long before the term became common in everyday language.

Let’s Review

First appearing in a figurative sense in the early 20th century, the idiom fell off the back of a truck is commonly used to imply that an item was acquired in a dubious or illegal manner. It can also suggest that the item in question is of poor quality.

Understanding idioms can enrich your language skills and help you connect more effectively with your audience. It’s a great way to take your English to the next level!