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Sling one’s hook

Q From Jo Ashburn in the USA: Would you mind explaining to sling one’s hook?

A This idiom is a decidedly informal British one, not much known in the USA. Most dictionaries record it from the latter part of the nineteenth century, and note that it could occur also in the form to take one’s hook. Both meant to leave, or go away, though it was often used as an urgent and impolite injunction to move on, as in this example from the Daily News of 1897: “If you don’t sling yer hook this minute, here goes a pewter pot at yer head”.

Now to the difficult bit — where it came from. There are at least two theories. One equates hook with a ship’s anchor, so that to sling one’s hook was to raise the anchor and sail away. The other says the hook is one on which a miner would hang his day clothes. When he finished his shift down the pit, he would change, collect his possessions from his hook, and leave. The second of these sounds much less convincing than the first, but the essential early evidence isn’t there to decide between them.

There’s an earlier expression, to sling one’s daniel, which had exactly the same meaning. What a daniel was nobody can say, except to suggest that it was some form of pack, or perhaps a word from dialect whose meaning is now lost.

We may be confused unnecessarily by sling here, as it was not uncommon for it to be a replacement for swing. The phrase to swing one’s hook makes sense, since hook was the common short name for a billhook or heavy curved pruning knife, as well as other implements. But that raises its own problems, since how that could take on the meaning of going away is less than clear.

On the other hand, that usage of hook could provide an explanation for to take one’s hook, since it could refer to an itinerant worker moving on to his next job. It’s also possible that sling your hook meant sling it over your shoulder in preparation for setting out to your next job.

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Copyright © Michael Quinion, 1996–. All rights reserved.
Page created 9 Oct. 1999

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The English language is forever changing. New words appear; old ones fall out of use or alter their meanings. World Wide Words tries to record at least a part of this shifting wordscape by featuring new words, word histories, words in the news, and the curiosities of native English speech.

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This page URL: http://www.worldwidewords.org/qa/qa-sli1.htm
Last modified: 9 October 1999.