Jump the Gun – Idiom, 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.

Idiomatic phrases originated with a literal use but are more often used figuratively to add a description to both the written and spoken word. Idioms can create confusion for anyone unfamiliar with the term or the English language.

To jump the gun is a fairly modern term that came into mainstream use during the early 20th century. At first, it was used literally but has since worked its way into modern use as a way to highlight impatience or premature behaviors.

Let’s take a closer look at its use, where it originated from, and how you can use it.

What Does Jump the Gun Mean?

Jump the Gun Idiom Origin Meaning

Jumping the gun means to do or start something before the appointed time, to act prematurely.

For example:

  • Even though my students knew they wouldn’t receive their final assessment optic until Wednesday, they kept jumping the gun and emailing to try and get information in advance.
  • When working your roping horse in the box, make sure to keep them in check to avoid jumping the gun and breaking the barrier.
  • The committee kept trying to jump the gun and made a decision on the bill before hearing all the discussion surrounding it.

The term jump the gun came into mainstream English at the turn of the twentieth century. Interestingly, there was an equally popular phrase in America: beat the gun or beat the pistol, which has fallen by the wayside.

Since the early 2000s, the starter pistol has mostly been replaced with an electronic pistol, and the sound that begins most races is now an electronic tone.

Jump the Gun Origin

Jump the Gun Ngram
Jump the gun usage trend.

The literal use of jumping the gun means to start a race before the starting pistol is fired, but controversy surrounds when this became an actual practice. There have been various means to measure the starting time of a race since ancient Greeks first began competing against one another. However, it seems the idea of a gunshot as a way to signal the start of a race has been around since the early 19th century during horse races in the American West.

Finding more information on this is a bit of a challenge, as is when the term “jump the gun” was first used idiomatically. Some sources claim it was first shown in print as a way to highlight the rushing of a situation in a Jacksonville Journal Courier Dear Abby column in 1830. However, Dear Abby columns weren’t founded until 1956, which means either the article was written before its time or the entire claim has been made up.

On that note, I was able to find a possible reference dated 1877. But again, this is a difficult source to document.

We can safely say (and confirm) that the use of a starting pistol was commonplace by the early 20th-century track competitions, with documentation found in Crowther and Ruhl’s Rowing and Track Athletics in 1905:

  • False starts were rarely penalized, the pistol generally followed immediately on the signal ‘Get set!’ and so shiftless were the starters and officials that ‘beating the pistol’ was one of the tricks which less sportsmanlike runners constantly practiced.

One of the earliest printed examples of the phrase being used idiomatically that I can document comes from a November 1921 issue of Wallace’s Farmer:

  • “Give the pigs a good start; jump the gun, so to speak, and get them on a grain ration before weaning time.”

Let’s Review

Despite the confusion surrounding its inception, both literally and figuratively, the term “jump the gun” has been documented in use since the early 1900s to mean rushing a task or acting impatiently when used in a figurative manner.

The initial use is specific to the use of a starting gun or tone that initializes a race. Used literally, to jump the gun means to start ahead of when you are supposed to.

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