Full Of Piss And Vinegar.

I was at a basketball game a few nights ago. Because there were not a lot of other people there, I was able to hear a lot of the talk that went on between the players and coaches. During a time out, I heard one of the coaches talking to his players:

I like the way we are working the game plan. We match up well against these guys, we can win this if we stay with the plan. Keep the energy high. Don’t forget that it helps to be full of piss and vinegar too.


Vinegar. Not pictured, Piss. (Photo credit: Sean MacEntee)

That moment ruined the game for me. Understanding the coach’s reminder about piss and vinegar wasn’t the problem. It is a commonly used phrase. It bothered me that I didn’t know why it became a commonly used phrase.

I don’t want that for you. Why should some inexplicable aphorism rumple your leisure time? To protect you, I’m going to explain why people say it is a good thing to be filled with this odd combination of fluids.


Back in the day of the Pony Express, riders would cover about seventy-five miles per day on horseback. This was dangerous and exhausting work. It was even worse for the horses. This isn’t about horses.

Riders would get nourishment and rest between their runs at home stations. Unfortunately, sanitary kitchen conditions were not what we’d expect today. Food safety was awful in these rural outposts. Riders were often sickened by the food meant to restore and sustain them.

Dishes containing ingredients that had been preserved in vinegar were popular among the riders. Folk lore told them that vinegar killed germs. We now have the science to prove what they believed. So, when a rider told another that he was “full of vinegar” it was a short-hand way of saying that he’d had a nourishing meal that he felt wasn’t going to make him ill because of the vinegar it contained.


If you and I took a car trip today, one of us might ask the other “do you need to “go” before we take off?” Asking that of a Pony Express rider was taboo.

English: Pony express rider Billy Fisher

Looks full to me. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Like drivers on today’s superhighways, Pony Express riders were prone to getting dazed by navigating long stretches of featureless scenery. Also like today’s drivers, dazed and tired riders were often involved in horrific accidents.  Unlike today, there were no rest stops that would allow riders to dismount and refresh themselves.

The solution? Hydration. Drinking plenty of water just before a ride helped riders by preventing dehydration. Of equal importance was the focus it brought the riders. As that water was processed, the riders felt exactly what you’d think they’d feel. The modesty of the day would not allow them to relieve the pressure along the side of the trail. The desperate need to void caused riders to have a laser like focus on the horizon, straining to see a hint of their next stop and blessed relief.

Greenhorns learned quickly to never encourage a rider to visit the restroom before departure. Pony Express riders considered doing so no different from wishing that rider an unsafe trip. Doing so was grounds for fisticuffs.

Piss And Vinegar

When a rider was on the horizon, approaching a home station, a call would go out inside that station. The station master would call out “I need one full of piss and vinegar, boys!”

A rider who was full of piss and vinegar was considered ready to go to work. Nourished and feeling just a little edgy due to his steadily filling bladder, he was the best man to climb up on the horse and take the incoming mail bag. He would ride like the wind and had the strength to make it to the next station.

The meaning of the phrase has been lost to time. The figurative need to be full of piss and vinegar has not. We all face times that call for us to find a way to get things done.

Now, you can be that person who gets things done without the distraction of wondering why people say that you’re full of two unpleasant fluids. You’re welcome.

25 Comments on “Full Of Piss And Vinegar.”

  1. Laura says:

    Oh, wow. I can’t believe I was so wrong about that expression for all these years. I guess I need to revise my salad dressing recipe now.

  2. If I was not on a mini-stay-cation, and staying up past my bed time, I would have missed this post. Now that I am in the know I will never go before heading out. Get it “heading out”, going to the head…. I know if you have to explain it, it wasn’t puny..er..funny. By the way do you know if Laura works at, owns, or has a stake in any restaurants? Just want to know if I can order a salad with vinaigrette safely.
    Great post Oma!

  3. Mick McCoy says:

    And there I was thinking it described a sour old bastard …

  4. AiXeLsyD13 says:

    Fascinating. I love word & phrase origins. This is excellent information.

    It reminds me of another piss-related story… I had heard somewhere that some Native Americans would drink a lot of water before they went to bed if they needed to be awake early. I have no idea if it’s true, but it sounds plausable.

  5. Wow. Who knew! Well, I guess I do now .Thanks. I always thought it meant feisty and ready to go….I was only half right.

  6. You have educated me today and I thank you.

  7. mikegee64 says:

    I used to do a joke in my stand up act. “I’m just full of piss and vinegar today… I just LOVE the salad dressing at Olive Garden!”

  8. lbwoodgate says:

    And here I thought it was a reference to one’s acerbic attitude they developed about something.

    The pony express lasted only a few short years before the telegraph replaced them but they left us this endearing image for all eternity. :-/

  9. Blogdramedy says:

    For me it’s piss and balsamic vinegar. I’m a gourmand.

  10. Wow, you really do your research. Mostly I just make things up if I don’t know the real story. A good friend of mine once told me, “Don’t let the truth get in the way of a good story.” Why did I tell you that? I really don’t know. HOWEVER, I do oil and vinegar when I’m around my sister and bleu cheese when I am not. And I piss 17 times a night. Maybe it’s the gallon of water I drink before sleep; I don’t know.

  11. I am not saying this for pity; it really works: When I have most desperately needed to stay awake, I’ve found that crying works best. I’m just full of tears and vinegar.

  12. And now I know.
    In all the variations I have heard over the years from grandparents etc. none of them came even close to this one. You are a beacon of knowledge.

  13. Debbie says:

    Hmm, what to say. . . I’ve heard this expression all my life. From the context, I understand its meaning. Now I learn the story behind the phrase. Thanks for educating me today!

  14. Pie says:

    I’d like to use the phrase ‘full of piss and vinegar’ in it’s original context, thanks to your epic research and explanation. But given that it’s not commonly known in the UK, I’d probably get a punch in the face.

  15. And knowing is half the battle. Thanks!

  16. benzeknees says:

    Wow, what an informative post, who would have guessed? Now I know.

  17. abcdefgh
    How interesting. And does the phrase pissing in the wind come from the behaviour of riders whose bladders couldn’t hold out until the next station?

  18. planetross says:

    My father was a doctor, so when I said I got kicked in the balls he said “You got kicked in the scrotum”.
    One year I had a soccer coach that said “the ball hit you in the old jewel bag”. I liked that one better: … as I was groaning on the sidelines … and then checking out that everything was okay before returning to play … and then getting kicked in the balls with a soccer boot shortly after.

  19. We Found Him Captain! says:

    You hardly ever hear that (p&v) expression any more. It has gone the way of some other “golden oldies” like “cutting the mustard” giving someone you don’t like an “Indian burn” or giving him the “dead finger” (sneaking up behind your enemy and whacking him on the back of his head and running away). How about the old expression ” they live in the old boondocks”. Please explain the origin of the expression “Hoppy Yeast!!”

  20. CHUCK says:

    How could anyone know whether a pony express rider relirved himself while on the trail? I think your explanation is made up. IT REALLY DOES NOT PASS THE THINK-ABOUT-IT-TEST.

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