Q From Lou Jandera: I’ve heard a rumour, meaning I was unable to verify the source, that the phrase to put a sock in it referred to early gramophones that had no volume control. It is said that people who were annoyed by the high decibels produced by these machines would suggest that the person operating the player put a sock, rolled up into a ball, inside the horn producing the sound. Seems like a good fit to me. Any way this can be researched or verified?
A I can’t give a copper-bottomed, guaranteed, incontrovertible answer, but there’s enough evidence to give a good pointer to the real source.
The story about putting a sock in the horn of a gramophone has been so widely reproduced that it’s unsurprising people believe it. It’s a delightfully unexpected and plausible tale. The image comes to mind instantly of some grumpy parent stuffing hosiery into the horn to muffle the noise of the kids’ records. Pre-electric gramophones did lack a volume control and I’m told they could be loud enough that finding some way to minimise the sound was desirable. But the evidence suggests that the story, pleasant as it is, came into being as a well-meaning but misconceived attempt to explain the origin of an existing saying.
The first examples of it appear in 1919, virtually simultaneously in the UK and Australia, rather late for it to be connected to gramophones, which had by then been around for some time:
The expression “Put a sock in it”, meaning “Leave off talking, singing or shouting”.
The Athenaeum (London), 8 Aug. 1919.
“But if you want to see a racecourse — a real full-sized dinkum top-hole racecourse I’m speaking of, mind you — come along with me to Tasmania,” chimed in the small voice of a lad who was very fond of apples, “and I will show you —” “Oh. dry up, Tassie; put a sock in it.”
Western Mail (Perth, Australia), 23 Oct. 1919. In number 5 of a series of articles entitled War-Time Sketches, by Louis F Cox.
The need in the first of these to define the expression suggests it was then new in the UK. Another example provides a further pointer:
“I’m not miserable, corporal,” said little Martlow: “We’re not dead yet. On’y I’m not fightin’ for any fuckin’ Beljums, see. One o’ them buggers wanted to charge me five frong for a loaf o’ bread.” “Well, put a sock in it. We’ve ’ad enough bloody talk now.”
The Middle Parts of Fortune, by Frederic Manning, 1929. The novel is set on the Western Front in France in 1916, during the First World War, which Manning — an Australian — experienced during his service with the King’s Shropshire Light Infantry. The text as he wrote it could not be published in his lifetime because of the authentic bad language it contained.
This and the previous citation strongly suggest that an origin among servicemen in the First World War is most probable, and explains how the expression got into Civvy Street simultaneously in both Britain and Australia — it was carried to both by homecoming soldiers.
There were several similar expressions around at the time. Eric Partridge pointed to the slightly earlier put a bung in it and we know that put a cork in it was in use for a while. It in all three cases is clearly the mouth.
As I said, it’s impossible to be sure, but I’d put my money on its having originally been First World War slang.