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Pop one’s clogs

Q From James Morrison: Where does the phrase to pop one’s clogs come from? And why does it mean to die!?

A It is mainly a British English slang expression, dating, so far as I can gather from the few slang and idiom dictionaries that cite it, only from the 1970s. The impression is that it seems to have either originated in — or been popularised by — television presenters and disc jockeys.

Clogs were the traditional workers’ footwear in several trades in the industrial towns and cities of midlands and northern Britain, for women as well as men, now rarely seen but at one time almost an icon of working class life. The sound of workers’ clogs on cobbled streets at the end of a shift has been likened to thunder.

The verb to pop may be the old term for pawning goods. The implication is that someone would only want to pawn his clogs when he had no further need for them, that is, when he was about to die. But it’s also possible that it’s linked to the idiom to pop off (an abbreviation of pop off the hooks), which can also mean to die.

On the basis of citation evidence, it looks like a pseudo-archaic form, unrecorded from times when workers did usually wear clogs to work and did often pawn small items each week to tide them over cash shortages. But I have had one subscriber tell me that he clearly remembers it being used in Lincolnshire 50 years ago, so it may be yet another example of a folk expression that existed for generations without being recorded in print.

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Copyright © Michael Quinion, 1996–. All rights reserved.
Page created 11 Nov. 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: 11 November 2000.