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Put a sock in it
Posted: 11 February 2009 11:53 AM   [ Ignore ]
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A colleague has asked me about the origin of the phrase “put a sock in it”, which he heard originally referred to decreasing the volume of a gramophone by sticking a sock in the horn.  (The old, purely mechanical gramophones had no volume control).

I was dubious for three reasons:
1) it sounds a little too cute to be true.
2) I thought the expression was more 1940s or 50s vintage.
3) Since they had no electronic amplification, I question how often excessive volume was a problem with early gramophones.

However, I’ve found that the earliest OED citation for the expression goes back to 1919, which puts it back to the era of mechanical gramophones.  And I suppose one can alway come up with scenarios where reduced volume would be wanted (someone, especially a baby, sleeping in the next room, for instance).

So: any evidence for or against?

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Posted: 11 February 2009 03:19 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 1 ]
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Here’s what Word Detective has to say about the gramophone theory (apparently it cropped up on the TV show Jeopardy):

I do, however, have to cut Jeopardy a bit of slack on this question, and not just because it is, as you say, one of the few fact-based intellectual holdouts in the celebrity-worship-athon that American TV has become. The Jeopardy researchers almost certainly trustingly picked up that story from one of several word-origin books that assert it as established truth, which it isn’t. Unfortunately, no source I have found that endorses that story provides any actual evidence in its favor, e.g., citations of accounts contemporaneous with the use of gramophones describing the practice, or even using the phrase in its supposed literal (gramophone volume control) sense. I’m not saying that the story isn’t true, just that it seems very unlikely to me.

There’s also the fact that the first print citation for “put a sock in it” found so far comes from 1919, a bit past the heyday of the gramophone, and takes the form of an explanation of the colloquial meaning of the phrase ("The expression ‘Put a sock in it,’ meaning ‘Leave off talking, singing or shouting’"), hardly necessary if the phrase was widely known at that time.

The great slang etymologist Eric Partridge, in his “Dictionary of Slang and Unconventional English,” pegs “put a sock in it” to early 20th century military slang use, and ties it, significantly, to another phrase popular at the time, “put a bung in it” ("bung" being a very old English word for “stopper” or “cork” of the type used to seal bottles). Both phrases meant simply “stop talking” or “shut up,” and since shoving a cork or sock in someone’s mouth would indeed be a effective silencer, it seems reasonable to conclude that the “it” of the phrases is definitely the human mouth, not a gramophone.

I’d put my money on Partridge being on the right track here.

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Posted: 11 February 2009 09:19 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 2 ]
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I’m not sure what he means by “a bit past the heyday of the gramophone.” Even if we restrict gramophones to those systems in which the sound was produced purely mechanically (record moves needle, needle moves diaphragm, diaphragm moves air) without any electronic amplification (which is how I’m using it for purposes of this discussion), I don’t see how 1919 is past that; electronically amplified phonographs didn’t hit the market until the ‘20s.

I get this date from a history of sound recording called America on Record by Andre Millard (2nd ed., 2005), of which substantial parts are accessible at Googlebooks.  In a discussion of the advantages that electronic amplification and loudspeakers brought, he writes:

Controlling the volume of reproduction was a welcome novelty for the owner of an electric machine.... In the acoustic machine there was not much volume to control; it was more a matter of dampening the sound by mechanical means.  The Victrola had a set of louvered doors in front of the horn that could be opened and closed. The Diamond Disk player had a ball of soft cloth that could be inserted into the mouth of the horn, either by hand or in the more expensive models by a cable attached to a lever, to lower the volume by gradually suffocating the sound, or “putting a sock in it.”

Now, he doesn’t say that this is the source of the phrase, and even if he did I wouldn’t take his word for it without a contemporary citation.  But it does persuade me that, as a practical matter, gramophone volume was sometimes regulated by putting wads of cloth in the horn, which makes the claimed origin more plausible.

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Posted: 12 February 2009 02:39 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 3 ]
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We used to have an old HMV wind-up gramophone dating from the 1920s, and yes, it’s true that the only volume control was through the horn.  But from my own recollection, and from this photograph of the horn, it’s clear that a single sock would have disappeared into the horn and been difficult to retrieve, so I doubt the gramophone origin.

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Posted: 12 February 2009 07:05 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 4 ]
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I’d put my money on Partridge being on the right track here.

Me too, as patronizing as I often am towards Partridge.  The Victrola etymology sounds exactly like a classic folk etymology, and to believe it I’d need to see evidence that it was used in that context.  “Put a sock in it” is always used to tell the addressee to stop talking, not to stifle some other noise.

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Posted: 20 February 2009 11:59 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 5 ]
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I have a 1903 Edison phonograph.  The horn isn’t all that large--perhaps 4” across the inside--and it’s loud enough that it’s easy to imagine someone wanting to mute it. A sock works fine, as does the container a record comes in (it has a nice, fuzzy lining).

Which doesn’t take it out of the realm of folk etymology, but does make it plausible.

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Posted: 03 January 2010 02:50 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 6 ]
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Good morning folks,

An alternative for when a sock might have been put in something to make it quieter could also be where brass instruments, such as saxaphones are muted by something being inserted into the bell. I was at a party on the weekend, and the sax player literally had one of his socks rolled up and inserted into the bell of his sax. This might help get around the problem of the old mechanical gramaphones not having enough volume to warrant being turned down. A sax in a small room can certainly do with some muting, and the timing of early 20th C isn’t too far off the rise of jazz as a popular sound, where the brass section might need to be player quieter to allow the piano or drums to also be heard.

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Posted: 04 January 2010 04:22 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 7 ]
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Later wind-up HMVs with internal horns had double doors at the front so the volume could be controlled by how wide they were opened. I have an old HMV with internal horn but no doors, something like this: 4111714577_8d07400596.jpg
I read about the expression in Nigel Rees’ mini-dictionary Phrases I think. He also had “sock it to me” but maybe in a different entry and cited the Aretha Franklin song Respect and a TV show I never saw Rowan & Martin’s Laugh-In where it was a catchphrase.

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Posted: 04 January 2010 04:23 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 8 ]
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Sorry, I didn’t mean to post the photo.

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Posted: 04 January 2010 09:20 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 9 ]
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I like the photo!

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Posted: 04 January 2010 01:32 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 10 ]
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More photos of wind-up gramophones, with or without socks, please.

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Posted: 05 January 2010 08:47 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 11 ]
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My most popular post yet! The doors would’ve had to have been at the back now I think about it. In the photo the swivelling playing arm rests in the end of the internal horn where socks/stockings would have been stuffed. My step-Gran gave me my HMV and my right arm got fairly muscular from having to wind it every two 78s along with another activity from that time. The sad part is that it came with a shellac 78 of Paul Anka’s Diana which I sat on and broke - major eBay fodder now.

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Posted: 08 January 2010 08:03 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 12 ]
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I haven’t renewed my OED subscription (credit crunch) so I can’t make a quick check on this, but, was ‘sock’ common usage in the early 20th century? - reading literature of the time it appears that ‘stocking’ was more usually used for this article of clothing - but as I said, I can’t check if I’m imagining it/decades out/plain wrong . . .

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Posted: 08 January 2010 09:19 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 13 ]
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Well, we’ve already established (in the OP) that the expression “put a sock in it” has been cited back to 1919, so evidently “sock” was common enough to support such an idiom in the early 20th.  The OED shows sock= “short stocking” (i.e., the modern sense we are using here) back to the 14th century, and citations in every century up to the 2Oth.  The expressions “in his socks” (referring to measurement of height without shoes), “knock [someone’s] socks off”, and “pull your socks up” [pull yourself together, make a good effort] are all dated back to the 19th century.  There’s also a 16th century idiom, “turn a sock”, but the meaning of the phrase is not given.

So there’s no reason to think that “sock” is too modern to be used in the context of muting gramophones.

[ Edited: 08 January 2010 11:46 AM by Dr. Techie ]
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Posted: 08 January 2010 10:17 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 14 ]
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venomousbede - 04 January 2010 04:23 AM

Sorry, I didn’t mean to post the photo.

I, for one, am very glad you did, bede. Thanks.

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Posted: 08 January 2010 07:40 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 15 ]
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I, for one, am very glad you did, bede. Thanks.

But Flickr might not be so glad.  Every time anyone of us opens this thread, that move requests the pic from their server.  It’s not a good practice.  Not a bad thing occasionally, but not a good habit to get into.

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