A wry view of life for the world-weary

What Is The Origin Of (75)?….


Get the sack

We live in a much more mobile job market than we used to. No longer do we aspire to or settle for a job for life, working our way up to whatever level on the greasy pole our talents or whatever else promotions are decided on allow us to. Companies, of course, are always looking for ways to maximise profits or reduce losses and the easiest was to reduce operating and management expenses.

Many examples of management-speak claptrap exist to dress up the fact that employees, as part of business process re-engineering, are being given the tin-tack. Whether they have been re-engineered or not, when they wake up the next morning, they don’t have a job. Having (almost) reached the end of my working life I was musing over the number of phrases in existence to make the fact that someone has been dismissed from a job sound more acceptable.

Getting the sack is probably the most common and, probably, refers to the practice of tradesmen gathering up their tools in a bag or sack when they were dismissed from their place of employment. After all, today we see people exiting their place of employment for the last time clutching a bin bag full of their personal effects or a cardboard box – far less convenient when it is wet, I’ve always thought. Getting the sack seems to have been an import from France because at least since the 17th century the phrase “On luy a donne son sac” can be found. The first recorded usage in English is not until the 19th century when Charles Westmacott, in his English Spy of 1825, writes, “You munna split on me or I shall get the zack for telling on ye”. Variants were reported in the 19th century such as get the bag in Northern England and get the empty in London.

The order of the boot

In some ways this is a grander or perhaps more accurately an ironic way of describing someone’s enforced departure from their employment as it conjures up the image of the award of something akin to the Order of the Garter. It first appeared in print in Rider Haggard’s Colonel Quaritch of 1888 and in a way that had to be explained, suggesting it wasn’t in common currency: “..and give that varmint Janter the boot. Give him what? Why kick him out..”

Being drummed out

An alternative, and one which carries with it pejorative connotations, is being drummed out, often of the army, and the equivalent of having a stain on your record. The practice in the military was to dismiss disgraced soldiers to the sound of a drum, thus drawing attention to their fate and, at the same time, sending a warning to other potential miscreants.

The first reference to drumming out to be found in print is, actually, unconnected with the military. Thomas Amory used the phrase figuratively in his Life of John Buncle of 1766 when he wrote, “they ought to be drummed out of society”. Ten years later the Edinburgh Advertiser used the phrase literally, “the messenger was sent to prison for a few days and drummed out”. But it was not until 1829 that Lord Macauley used it in a military context, “another is drummed out of the regiment”.

So now we know!


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