Q From Jennie Booth, Australia: I came across the phrase with some welly in a BBC report today. I’ve not seen it before and am curious about its meaning. Can you help?
A It’s a fine bit of British English slang, usually in the form give it some welly. This instruction, often shouted to a person as encouragement or criticism, asks for more effort to be put into whatever he or she is doing.
It dates from the 1970s. The last word in the phrase is a common British abbreviation for the equally British term wellington boots (“It’s wet in the garden — best wear your wellies”), these being waterproof rubber boots named after the First Duke of Wellington. The slang sense seems to have come about through mental links with various senses of boot or foot — one of the earliest appearances was in motor racing, in which the reference was putting the foot more firmly on the accelerator; another was in football, for a powerful kick. There doesn’t seem to be a direct association of ideas with the minor British sport of welly-throwing, but you never know.
I always hear it mentally with a Glasgow accent, perhaps because the Big Yin, the comedian Billy Connolly, was one of those who popularised it.