A wry view of life for the world-weary

What Is The Origin Of (117)?…


Put a sock in it

You can imagine the scene. Someone is going on and on, getting on your nerves with their incessant jabbering. In exasperation you cry, “put a sock in it”, often, perhaps, with some form of exclamation or imprecation at the front. The meaning is pretty clear – shut up, be quiet, the sock being used figuratively as the mechanism by which the mouth is gagged. When you stop and think about it, the idea of putting a sock, used or unused, into someone’s mouth is pretty distasteful but where did the phrase originate?

One of the few positives of the First World War was that the trenches on the western front provided a mixing ground for the linguistic inventiveness of the British and Australian troops who found themselves in this man-made version of hell. Our phrase first made an appearance in 1919. Interestingly, though, it appeared in two continents in pretty short order. Such was the speed of communications at the time that this can only point to a common origin.

The Port Macquarie News of 14th June 1919 carried an article in which the journalist tried to encapsulate as many idioms and slang expressions that were used in the trenches as possible. The article report, “It had begun to rain and some chaps called out: “Send it down David!” But others shouted “Put a sock in it!” and after a lot of grousing, we set off”. Back in Blighty The Athenaeum, a rather up-market literary magazine at the time, felt it necessary of 8th August 1919 felt it necessary to advise its readership, “the expression “put a sock in it” meaning “Leave off talking, singing or shouting”. The implication of this bit of lexicography on the Athenaeum’s part is that it is a relatively new idiom, at least in refined civilian circles. The inference is that it was brought back home simultaneously by troops returning to England and Australia.

The front-line genesis is somewhat confirmed by Australian, Frederic Manning’s novel set in the Western Front of France in 1916 during which he saw service in the King’s Shropshire Light Infantry. The novel, The Middle Parts of Fortune, was only published in 1929, which used the vernacular of the ordinary soldiers to describe their experiences. It was initially a limited edition because of the bad language that peppered the dialogue. There’s only so much reality a chap can stand, after all. But it is fair to assume it was a pretty accurate account of the idioms in vogue there. Within the book, we come across this passage, “Well, put a sock in it. We’ve ‘ad enough bloody talk now”.

There are variants – put a cork in it and put a bung in it but, presumably, these articles were in short supply in the trenches. Socks, however, were a different matter.

One of the enduring battles between parents and their offspring – or at least it was before the general availability of headphones – was the volume at which they played their music. There is an engaging theory that one of the ways to moderate or even muffle the sounds emanating from a wind-up gramophone with a great big horn was to stuff something down it. What better than a sock? The very early gramophones did come without volume controls – after all, getting a sound out of the thing was an achievement in itself – but the fact that the Athenaeum felt it necessary to define it to sort of chaps who might have treated themselves to a new-fangled music reproduction system and related it to speech rules that out.

Time to put a sock in it, I think.


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