Over a Barrel

Hello,

With only one week left of pre-ordering on my new book “Words The Sea Gave Us” I’m getting excited about launch day (13th July). This week’s word is the phrase “over a barrel” and it’s a nautical phrase with two possible shipboard roots.

Over a Barrel {extract from “Words The Sea Gave Us” by Grace Tierney, copyright 2020}

To have somebody over a barrel is to have the upper hand as they are rendered helpless.

There are two excellent reasons to put somebody over a barrel in a seafaring context. Either could be the source of this phrase which only entered printed English in 1938, but may have been around earlier.

The first option is to stretch a naughty sailor over the barrel before bringing out the cat o’ nine tails (see the Tight Ship chapter).

The second, more likely and equally helpless option, is the common method of reviving somebody who’d nearly drowned. The unfortunate soul was placed face down over the barrel which was then rolled back and forth vigorously to drain the seawater from their lungs and hopefully jolt them back into breathing. It’s unknown how often the over the barrel idea succeeded.

Barrel, despite being a very common item for centuries, has unknown origins. It was present by the 1300s in several European languages in various spellings, but the source hasn’t been found although barriclus in Medieval Latin is a good candidate.

Until next time happy reading, writing, and wordfooling,

Grace (@Wordfoolery)

p.s. this post contains affiliate links which make a small payment to the blog if you choose to purchase through them. #CommissionsEarned. Alternatively, you can use my digital tip jar.

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