Where does the phrase "little yellow van with square wheels" come from?
August 13, 2011 2:01 PM   Subscribe

Does anyone know anything about the origin of the phrase "they're coming in a little yellow van with square wheels" (and variations on this) to refer to being taken away to a mental asylum?

It was used by my parents to me (Northern England, 1980s and on). Googling the phrase "van with square wheels" reveals a number of uses of it in the same context of being taken away to a mental asylum, but nothing about where it comes from.

The online uses I've found all conform to the same theme. There is a slight colour variation; usually yellow or white, a few green, single instance of multicoloured but no other colours which I've found. Sometimes there are mentions of people, such as "men in white coats in a yellow van with square wheels".

The very specific nature of it makes me think that there must be an underlying source, perhaps a song or memorable quote. The phrase just came to mind a wee while ago and I thought I'd be able to find the origin online without trouble, but I haven't found anything.
posted by Coobeastie to Writing & Language (7 answers total)

Here in the USA we have the men in white coats who will take you to the funny farm. No van with square wheels though, I like that idea.
posted by mermayd at 2:44 PM on August 13, 2011

Nor does the song in drjimmy's link have a van in it. Lyrics here.
posted by Kirth Gerson at 5:38 PM on August 13, 2011

In the U.S. I've heard "men in white coats in a white van" coming to take you away. I think this is because in America if someone is involuntarily committed, they are usually taken by ambulance, and ambulances in this country are typically (although not always) white with various colors used for the lettering. Are ambulances in the U.K. commonly yellow?
posted by katyggls at 12:44 AM on August 14, 2011

Can't say I recall the square wheels, but this was how we used to refer to it - men in white coats and the yellow van - when I was growing up. Again, Northern England, similar timeframe.

I do recall a sketch from an Alexei Sayle comedy show where he (while dressed as a mime) gets dragged away from a supermarket by a pair of men in white coats to a waiting van, painted, you guessed it, yellow.
posted by Nice Guy Mike at 7:38 PM on August 14, 2011

Best answer: The whys and wares of the yellow van - A story of the yellow vans of Nottingham published in 2008, referring to something that happened 25 years before (no square wheels though).
posted by unliteral at 9:49 PM on August 14, 2011

Response by poster: Thanks for the link unliteral - so probably the yellow vans were real, and somewhere along the line the wheels ended up square because of the associations.
posted by Coobeastie at 10:00 AM on August 15, 2011

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