Grammar

Where Did the Phrase ‘On the Double’ Come From?

When someone wants something done quickly, you may hear them demand that it be completed ‘on the double.’ Here’s where that well-known old idiom come from.

On the double is an idiom. An idiom is a grouping of words that have a unique meaning that isn’t always clear from the words alone.

Some sources state there’s an alternate version of the phrase that is sometimes used: at the double. Honestly, I never one heard anyone tell someone to do something “at the double” or suggest that something should be done “at the double.” I suppose that depends on where you’re from.

I’ve heard the phrase several times over the years. Most of the time, I’ve heard it in a military context. That makes sense because the phrase has a military origin.

The word double is definitely a clue: the phrase means to move at least twice as fast.

I guess that part wasn’t terribly difficult to figure out, was it?

When you dig deeper into that military origin, you find references to marching.

The phrase means to march in “double time,” meaning you’re moving twice as fast as normal.

My best friend loves drum corps. He attends national championships each year and two of his three children have marched. Watching all of the coordination required to march with instruments is amazing.

I don’t know how those young people manage to move as fast as they do.

Marching, whether in a band or in military regalia, is surely much more difficult than it looks.

I struggle to imagine what it’d be like to march at all, much less double the normal pattern.

But then that’s the point for this phrase: you have to move quickly — twice as fast, or preferably faster than that.

So the next time you hear the phrase, you’ll know what’s being asked of someone. Maybe you’ll sympathize with them!

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Patrick is a Christian with more than 28 years experience in professional writing, producing and marketing. His professional background also includes social media, reporting for broadcast television and the web, directing, videography and photography. He enjoys getting to know people over coffee and spending time with his dog.