The expression pound sand appears to be a uniquely American saying, one perhaps most widely used in the Midwestern United States. Hearing or reading it likely conjures up an image of someone beating or striking sand in some way, say with a shovel. But is that really what it’s about? Not exactly. As an idiom, the phrase has a figurative rather than literal meaning—rather, meanings. Keep reading to learn more.
What Does Pound Sand Mean?
Today, pound sand is used in one of two ways:
- To describe partaking in a futile, or pointless, activity
- To tell someone to get lost; to dismiss them and send them away
If you think about it, the first usage makes good sense. Pounding sand is completely pointless. After all, the primary definition of pound as a verb is “to reduce to powder or pulp by beating,” and sand is already a fine powder! Beating it isn’t going to change it in any way—if you pound sand for an hour, after 60 minutes, you’ll be left with exactly what you had when you began: sand. You will have accomplished nothing and wasted your time, and you’ll likely feel contempt or disdain for the menial task to boot.
Actually, the second usage has a great deal to do with the first. It’s used to dismiss someone—to tell them to go away. You can think of it like this: If someone’s bothering you or annoying you and you want them to leave you alone, and you tell them to pound sound, you’re telling them to go occupy themselves in some other way, like with a pointless, menial task such as pounding sand, which will take up their time and get them out of your hair and off your back. You’re also expressing your contempt or disdain for them in that moment, maybe even seeing them as stupid or inferior (as someone who would do something pointless like pound sand and not question it). When you tell someone to pound sand or go pound sand (as is often said), it’s like using the phrases buzz off, get lost, or even go to hell; other similar expressions include go jump in a lake, go fly a kite, and go play in traffic.
Here are some example sentences using versions of the idiomatic expression pound sand:
- My little brother was getting on my nerves so badly this morning, following me everywhere I went while asking me all kinds of silly questions. I finally told him to go pound sand!
- Yesterday, my boss asked me to “clean up” the cabinets of office files. But I told her it would be like pounding sand—that the files were all for current clients, and they were already alphabetized correctly. I knew it would be a waste of my time.
- I wish you’d just pound sand, Sarah, and stop hounding me about what happened with my breakup. It’s none of your business.
- I work a dead-end job that feels like pounding sand: The tasks are menial, and there’s no opportunity for growth.
You may also hear or see the expression as pound salt or pound dirt.
The Origin of the Expression
It appears the expression dates to the late 19th century. It may have originated as the longer expression not enough sense to pound sand in a rathole or not enough sense to pound sand down a rathole. Filling ratholes with sand is indeed menial work, so there is some connection there. But the connotation of the longer phrase is that filling ratholes with sand does actually serve a purpose and makes good sense, and that someone who wouldn’t think of doing so isn’t sensible; in other words, they’re stupid. Perhaps one has contempt for those who are less wise than them, and thus the second use of the phrase today. The second use of the phrase today can also imply that someone who would do something as pointless as pound sand doesn’t have much sense about them.
A vulgar version of the phrase is said to have been popular during World War II: go pound sand up one’s ass. Clearly, this use gets at the idea of contempt expressed when the saying is used today, and wishing someone would go away and occupy themselves with something else, including with a pointless task. It just coupled these meanings with the idea of humiliating oneself. Pounding sand in general could be thought of as humiliating, or lowly or undignified; it appears at the time the vulgarity was added to emphasize this.
In fact, one of the most well known uses of pound sand—well, the form pound salt—is this vulgar version. When Max Yasgur argued with local dignitaries about hosting Woodstock at his New York farm, he said, “Well, you can all go pound salt up your ass, because come August 15th, we’re going to have a festival!”
It also appears a less vulgar version, go pound sand in your ears, was popular around the same time as the vulgar form. Language researchers turned up this variation in a 1948 entry from the Southeast Economist:
“From her store of memories Mrs. Mary R. Stuart of Harvard Ave, perpetrator of this column of sayings of wisecracks popular in the ‘Oh yeah?’ era, recalls that ‘go pound sand in your ears’ meant to soft-pedal the noise.”
Pound sand is an idiom. An idiom is an expression with an intended meaning that can’t typically be understood just by looking at the words that comprise it. These words and phrases have a figurative rather than literal meaning. 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 at the start of this post, if you were to take the saying pound sand literally, you’d think it meant to whack sand. But you now know it’s used figuratively, and that the meaning of the phrase is either wasting one’s time by doing something pointless and ineffective, or, when told to somebody with a feeling of disdain, to go away and get lost.
The idiom pound sand can mean wasting time by participating in a pointless activity, or it can be used to tell someone to get lost and leave you alone. Although, the two meanings aren’t entirely separate from one another. With the latter, you’re actually, in effect, telling someone to go take part in a futile task, so that they waste their time on that and not on bothering you; in this way, it’s usually used with a level of scorn or ridicule.