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Over a barrel

Q From Norm Brust: Last week, you mentioned the expression to have somebody over a barrel, meaning to have that person at your mercy. However obvious it may seem, I would like to know the precise source of this metaphor.

A It might not be that obvious. My first reference point, as so often, was the Oxford English Dictionary, which finds the first occurrence of the expression in Raymond Chandler’s The Big Sleep of 1939: “Some day you might use that gun again. Then you’d be over a barrel.” This makes it sound as though the barrel in question is that of a gun, but — as we shall see — Chandler is making a joke on a saying that, notwithstanding the OED, was at that time already well known.

The OED suggests that the allusion is to placing a person rescued from drowning over a barrel to clear their lungs of water. This might sound rather unlikely, but there are many references in the literature to show this was once a common practice, as for example in The Flying U’s Last Stand by B M Bower (1915): “Then they began to work over him exactly as if he had been a drowned man, except that they did not, of course, roll him over a barrel.” An article in the Trenton Times of New Jersey in August 1885 that explained how to resuscitate a person warned against the technique, clearly a traditional one: “In the first place they should be brought in face downwards, and then laid upon their faces, so that their heads are lower than the nether parts of their bodies, and the water they have swallowed can go out. There need be no rough action to secure this result. In fact, the rolling of a person over a barrel or other rough exercise might be the means of killing them.”

The figurative expression is much older than the OED was able to discover — the earliest I’ve been able to turn up is this from the Woodland Daily Democrat of California, dated January 1896: “To use a vulgar expression, a Republican congress gleefully assembled in Washington for the express purpose of getting President Cleveland ‘over a barrel.’ The humiliating predicament in which the aforesaid congress now finds itself is ample evidence that Mr. Cleveland has beaten it at its own game.”

I’m also unsure about the claimed source. There are instances recorded from this period and earlier of a person being placed on or rolled over a barrel as a humiliating punishment. One case was that of a student hazing at a college in Ohio, reported in the Frederick Daily News in Maryland in 1886: “Once inside he was at the mercy of his captors, and the treatment he received was cruel. Bound hand and foot, he was rolled over a barrel.” This is by far the more likely origin, since a person held over a barrel is helpless, whether face down or face up. It fits the meaning of the phrase much better than the resuscitation one does.

Page created 29 May 2004

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Last modified: 29 May 2004.