You’re frustrated with trying to complete a difficult task and feel like giving up when your friend says, “Keep on truckin!” What do they mean? Are they telling you to hop in a truck and drive away?! Not quite. This article will explore the meaning of this popular idiomatic expression, as well as uncover its origins and share how the phrase became so widely used.
What Does Keep on Truckin Mean?
Keep on truckin means to keep going—to continue on or to carry on. As you can probably tell from the paragraph above, the idiomatic phrase is typically used to provide encouragement. It’s used to help motivate someone to stay focused on a particular task or job, or to otherwise persist with an effort or undertaking, usually one that is challenging. Put simply, it is often written or said to inspire someone to not give up.
Of course, the phrase can also be used not to offer encouragement, but rather to describe someone who is continuing to move forward or continuing to try; it can be used to talk about someone who is persisting—generally in the face of adversity.
Here are some examples of both uses:
- You’re almost done with the puzzle. Just keep on truckin, and you’ll finish in no time! (encouragement)
- Jim was the kind of man who would always keep on truckin, no matter how many tragedies he faced. (description)
- After I lost my job, I had to keep on truckin. I kept sending out resumes until a great company hired me. (description)
- I know you’re having a hard time, but tomorrow is a new day. Keep on truckin! (encouragement)
The Origins of Keep on Truckin
It’s possible that the phrase has its origins in the 1936 song “Truckin’ My Blues Away” by the blues guitarist and singer Blind Boy Fuller. The phrase is repeated throughout the song in the lines “keep on truckin’ mama” and “keep on truckin’ baby.” While we can’t know for sure what Fuller meant when he used the expression, he may have been alluding to a popular 1920s and 30s dance, similar to the Lindy Hop, called trucking or truckin.
During this time period, marathon dance contests were quite popular. Young dancers would keep moving and dancing all throughout the night, which may be how the term truckin and the phrase keep on truckin came to have the meaning we know today. Other possibilities for how the expression came to be synonymous with persisting or moving ahead? When trains were a popular form of travel, baggage “trucks” were used in railroad stations. It’s thought that porters associated trucks and the idea of trucking with the concept of moving along, sometimes saying they were going to “truck on home after work.” And, it’s certainly possible that today’s meaning came about because long-haul truckers, faced with long drives across the country, have to keep moving on down the road.
When the Phrase Become Popular
Taking inspiration from Blind Boy Fuller’s song, in 1968, the cartoonist Robert Crumb (known for the character Mr. Natural, who he used regularly in his comic strips) created a one-page comic for the first issue of Zap Comix, a comic book. It was called, you guessed it, “Keep on Truckin’.” It featured illustrations of different men walking in a stylized way—almost dancing, or strutting—across various backgrounds while saying “keep on truckin’” and “truckin’ my blues away.” R. Crumb’s comic made the phrase extremely popular.
In fact, it became a sort of hippie slogan. Why? Because the hippie era of the 60s and 70s was defined by optimism. Indeed, the iconic band the Grateful Dead released a song called “Truckin’” in 1970; while it doesn’t use the exact phrase keep on truckin, its lyrics include “keep truckin’” and “keep truckin’ on.” As a touring band, the lyrics to their song hit on both the literal and figurative meanings of the phrase: to keep actually trucking like truck drivers from show to show, but also the idea of getting back up when you’re knocked down. The Grateful Dead weren’t the only band to use the phrase around that time, however: In 1972, Hot Tuna released the album Burgers, which included a song called “Keep On Truckin.’” (It featured many of Fuller’s lyrics.) Then, in 1973, Eddie Kendricks, of the Temptations, released a song with the same title.
Interestingly, Robert Crumb, not a fan of the hippie counterculture, wasn’t happy that his comic and the phrase caught on like wildfire. Shortly after it was published, his comic began being printed on T-shirts, bumper stickers, and other items, including, aptly, mudflaps. The artist eventually threatened lawsuits against those using the image without his permission. But, because of a copyright mishap, his work was actually deemed public domain until 1977. He’s had to defend that copyright as recently as 2005. In 1972, he published a parody of his original comic, which featured different phrases like keep on rollin along.
What Are Idioms?
As has been mentioned already, the phrase keep on truckin is an idiom. But what is an idiom exactly? An idiom is an expression with an intended meaning that can’t fully be understood just by looking at the words that comprise it. These words and phrases almost always have a figurative rather than literal meaning. In other words, they don’t mean what they appear to mean. Even if you’ve never heard the term idiom, you have most likely heard many idiomatic expressions. Here are just a few of the most common idioms used today:
You’re in hot water.
His boss gave him the ax.
It’s time to face the music.
You’ve hit the nail on the head.
If you took the first example literally, you’d think it was describing a person standing in a bathtub full of hot water, perhaps. But the expression is actually used to describe a person who’s in trouble. Likewise, rather than literally being handed a tool for chopping wood, if you get the ax from your boss, it means you’re getting fired. It’s time to face the music means that it’s time to come to terms with the consequences of your actions. And when someone has hit the nail on the head, they’ve gotten an answer exactly right or done something exactly as it should have been done.
As mentioned when discussing the Grateful Dead song, the idiom keep on truckin could be meant literally: to keep going along the road in a truck. But, most often, it is used figuratively, as we’ve established, to encourage someone not to give up and to keep trying, to persist down the figurative road ahead.
Synonyms for Keep on Truckin
If you want to encourage someone to keep trying and continue with what they’re doing, or to describe the act of persisting, there are many other words and phrases you can use in addition to keep on truckin. Here are just a few example synonyms:
- Tough it out
- Keep the ball rolling
- Hang in
- Hang in there
- Carry on
- Carry forward
- Get on with it
- Press on
- Keep on keepin on
- Keep going
- Don’t give up
- Don’t stop
- Stay the course
- Continue on
- Move ahead
- Keep moving forward
- Keep moving on
- Keep moving ahead
- Plug on
- Keep plugging away
- And the list goes on…
Although we can’t be entirely sure of the phrase’s origins, it most likely came from the 1930s—in particular, from a blues song by the musician Blind Boy Fuller. For many possible reasons, the expression came to be used to offer encouragement: to motivate someone to carry on with whatever they’re doing, to keep trying to accomplish a task or find success, even if that job or endeavor is difficult or challenging. The idiom gained great popularity in the 1960s and 70s after being used in a comic strip by the cartoonist Robert Crumb, and it remains a popular idiomatic expression to this day.