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Sock it to them

Q From George Fagg: Quick question — where does the phrase sock it to them originate? For example, hitting the ball in sport (‘sock it to me’) or as encouragement (‘sock it to ’em’).

A Quick answer — we don’t know.

That deserves some footnotes. It is certainly American in origin. Many Americans remember Judy Carne and others saying “sock it to me” on Rowan and Martin’s Laugh-In between 1968 and 1973, a phrase that in the words of my American cultural adviser was “at once meaningless and very meaningful and carried — among other ideas — a vague, implied sexual invitation”.

It wasn’t new, of course. It dates from some point around the 1850s or shortly after. The first example I can find is from a book about the American Civil War, published in 1866, which contains this line: “Now then, tell General Emory if they attack him again to go after them, and to follow them up, and to sock it to them, and to give them the devil”.

Pretty clearly this comes from a much older low slang use of the word sock, meaning to hit or punch, to give somebody a heavy blow, to assault or beat someone. There was also the phrase to give someone sock, to give someone a thrashing. These date back to the late seventeenth century in Britain, and were presumably carried to the USA by emigrants. We still have that sense of sock in phrases like “The driver socked him on the jaw” (plus the wonderful American sockdolager for a knock-down blow, which seems to owe its origin in part to a mental link with sock).

But where sock in this sense came from, nobody knows. I have a mental image of a sand-filled sock used as a cosh or blackjack, but that’s probably misleading!

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Page created 26 Oct 2002