Green’s Dictionary of Slang

on the wagon phr.

also on the cart, ...water-cart, ...water-wagon
[SE water-wagon]

1. voluntarily refraining from alcohol.

[US]United Service I 155: ‘No, thanks,’ was the reply ; ‘I’m on the water-wagon.’ ‘Oh, I know that; but I mean as medicine’.
[US]H. Blossom Checkers 167: Arthur took early occasion to state that he was ‘on the water-wagon.’.
[US]Hegan Mrs. Wiggs 123: I wanted to git him some whisky, but he shuck his head. ‘I’m on the water-cart,’ sez he [DA].
[US]Boston Globe Sun. Mag. 21 Dec. 7–8: If a student has ‘hit the benzine can’ too hard on the night before he is apt to be anxious to get ‘on to the water wagon’.
[UK]Wodehouse Gentleman of Leisure Ch. v: ‘Talking, however,’ said Jimmy, ‘is dry work. Are you by any chance on the wagon?’.
[US]Van Loan ‘Sweeney to Sanguinetti to Schultz’ in Ten-Thousand-Dollar Arm 59: We’ve reformed [...] It’ll be five weeks to-morrow since we got on the cart.
[US]T.A. Dorgan Indoor Sports 22 Jan. [synd. cartoon] ’Member the time Mansfield was on the cart and we caught him dipping his bread in the brew.
[US]F. Hurst ‘A Petal on the Current’ in Humoresque 105: I’m on the water-wagon.
[US]Ade Hand-made Fables 12: They had been on the Cart for two full days.
[US]M.E. Smith Adventures of a Boomer Op. 52: As Mr. Phillips says, I am O.W.W. (On The Water Wagon).
[UK]P. Marks Plastic Age 273: He did his drinking elsewhere, confiding to his cronies that Carver was on the wagon.
[UK](con. WWI) Fraser & Gibbons Soldier and Sailor Words 301: Water Cart (or Wagon), On The: A Teetotaller.
[Aus]D. Stivens Tramp and Other Stories 49: Bloody poor way of spendin’ the afternoon . . . keepin’ on the water-waggon . . . she’ll have to make up for mucking my afternoon.
[UK]F. Durbridge Send for Paul Temple (1992) 223: What the devil’s the matter with you, Horace? Are you on the wagon?
[UK]N. Mitford Pigeon Pie 243: He was now on the water-waggon.
[Aus]D. Stivens Courtship of Uncle Henry 168: Metho Bill, the town’s fulltime drunk, swore off the drink and went on the waggon to make sure he would be sober for the match.
[Aus]Cusack & James Come in Spinner (1960) 310: Tea it had to be since he had decided to go on the water-wagon.
[US]J. Thompson Alcoholics (1993) 67: I’ll be about ready to go on the wagon.
[Aus]J. Alard He who Shoots Last 93: You should go on the wagon yourself.
[UK]Wodehouse Much Obliged, Jeeves 27: Ginger’s practically on the waggon, so there were no cocktails before lunch.
[US]B. Gutcheon New Girls (1982) 9: He [...] announced he was on the water wagon.
[US]J. Ellroy Brown’s Requiem 43: You got that look, nervous like, of a juicehead on the wagon.
[SA]R. Malan My Traitor’s Heart (1991) 286: He was technically on the wagon but [...] a drink or two on a special occasion wouldn’t really hurt.
[UK]D. Mitchell Black Swan Green 314: So how long [...] we staying on the wagon this time, then, Frank Moran?
[Aus]L. Redhead Thrill City [ebook] I guess if you’re going to fall off the wagon then the conclusion of a police pursuit was the time to do it.
[UK]Sun. Times 6 Feb. 23/3: In 2000 she went on the wagon.

2. in ext. use of sense 1, adopting any form of self-denial, e.g. celibate, abandoning one’s use of drugs.

[US]H. Selby Jr Demon (1979) 19: His love life [...] was extremely active. When he first started working [...] he went on the wagon, so to speak.
[UK]N. Barlay Curvy Lovebox 33: You want some fuckin’ gear or you wanna go on the fuckin’ wagon the rest of your days.

In phrases

ride the (water-)wagon (v.) (also climb the water-wagon)

to abstain from alcohol.

[US]‘Hugh McHugh’ You Can Search Me 19: He pulled a few snake tricks down there and in five minutes he had all the members of the Highball Association climbing the water wagon.
[US]Mencken letter 8 Apr. in Bode New Mencken Letters (1977) 52: I rode the water-wagon for 4 weeks.
[US]Ade Old-Time Saloon 19: A large slice of the population, even during the high tide of the wet era, shunned the booze joints and rode on the wagon.