"Get with the program"

How far back does this phrase go, and what was the primary meaning of “program” when it was coined?

When I first heard the expression, back in the Seventies, computers were vacuum-tube-bearing mainframes located at large universities and SAC Air Force bases. The context of ‘program’ seemed to be ‘agreed course of action’. which the person addressed was failing to comply with.

Google news archive has “Get with the program”, in the sense I surmise the OP is using i.e. series of things to be accomplished, back to 1955.

Literal “Get with the program” as some additional information accompanying a printed announcement of events is much older.

Definition from Merriam-Webster: a brief usually printed outline of the order to be followed, of the features to be presented, and the persons participating (as in a public performance).

Telling a performer to ‘get with the program’ is telling him to follow the script. Telling an audience member to ‘get with the program’ is telling him to keep up with what’s happening on stage. In general, ‘Get with the program’ means what Polycarp said.

It would be difficult for me to document this, but I recall hearing a Sergeant yell it in Army training ca. 1965. It had no reference to a computer program, but a “plan of action.” It was equivalent to “Get your head out of your ass and do what the rest of us are doing!”

I don’t remember a time when it wasn’t a phrase (born in 1954), but wasn’t confident about that, thus the question. I agree that it’s probably not a reference to computers, but wasn’t sure what it did refer to. Theatrical program makes sense, kind of – but the exhortation is usually to an actor (in the larger sense), not a member of a (metaphorical) audience, who would be the one who actually had a program. Members of the cast don’t have programs, they have scripts.

Program as in a course of training that one is expected to keep up with after signing on with an organization, i.e. the ROTC program.

I think your memory is off a decade or so.

UNIVAC built it’s first solid-state computer in 1958, and IBM followed a year later with the 7090 & 1401 series. The vacuum-tube predecessors, the IBM 709 was discontinued in April, 1960, while the IBM 1401 series lived on until the 1410 version was discontinued in Feb, 1971 (though the series had been effectively dead-ended by 1965, by the System 360). A lot of these machines were still functional then, and were sold to southern Asia, especially India & Pakistan, where they operated for years.

But any vacuum-tube computers you saw operating at large universities in the 1970’s were either universities in Asia, or backward ones in the USA.

Okay, yeah, that makes sense. Thanks!

Yep, I had basic training at Ft. Gordon in 1966, this is where I first heard it… Drill Sergeants… you gotta love 'em!

Google books has an interesting tidbit as early as 1951, although it’s viewable only in snippet form. I don’t think I’m misreading it. My interpretation, from that useage in an advertising magazine, would be jargon used by ad people.


By the mid-1960s, it certainly was used by the military, but also by magazines.


It does seem to be a military usage originally, though. Interesting.

In French, “program” can mean “plan” or “schedule.” To discuss your “program” is to discuss your plans for the day.

I imagine at one time “program” had more of this kind of connotation in English- especially in specialized fields like the military. Today, you only see shadows of this meaning in terms like “ROTC program.”

The word came into English in the seventeenth century as “programma”, a straightforward borrowing of the Latin <i>programma</i>, a proclamation or edict. It was used in the academic world to indicate rules, regulations, academic decisions, etc, usually notified to those interested or affected by being posted up in a public place. From there it developed into an advance notice of any formal proceedings – theatrical presentations, academic courses of study, etc. It had acquired this meaning by the early eighteenth century. From meaning the announcement of the content of a presentation, course, etc, it was a short step to meaning the content itself.

But in “get with the programme”, the earlier sense is important. The point is not simply that there are certain steps which should be taken or certain actions which should be done, but that this has been announced and published, and that people who need to know about this should know about this. To be told to “get with the programme” implies that you are at fault.