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Have one’s guts for garters

Q From Mark Pritchard in the UK: I mentioned to a work colleague that my sister would have my guts for garters if I didn’t send her a card, but she didn’t understand. Any ideas on the origins of this saying, sadly falling into disuse, it would seem?

A Somehow I don’t think this one is going to go away soon, at least not to judge by its track record. The oldest example I can track down is from The Bride of Lammermoor, by Sir Walter Scott, published in 1819: “He that would not pledge me, I would make his guts garter his stockings”. But, according to Paul Beale’s update of Eric Partridge’s A Dictionary of Catch Phrases, it has been around in various forms since the eighteenth century, was at one time Cockney low slang or the cant of racecourse toughs, and was a common reprimand or threat by NCOs in the services during World War Two and afterwards. As that book notes, it has since risen somewhat in the social scale to become a macho phrase among some middle managers.

When it first came into use two hundred years ago, it must have been a serious warning, implying disembowelling, but in modern times it is merely figurative, implying that one will take some unspecified action in reprisal for unacceptable behaviour. The persistence of the expression surely owes a lot to the alliteration of guts and garters, but also to the existence of similar phrases such as to hate somebody’s guts. The fact that modern British men rarely wear garters, and that when they do they tend to call them sock suspenders, has not affected the popularity of the phrase!

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Copyright © Michael Quinion, 1996–. All rights reserved.
Page created 8 Jan. 2000

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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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Last modified: 8 January 2000.