over a barrel

The phrase over a barrel, meaning to be helpless or in a dire predicament, has been in use since at least 1939 when it was used in Raymond Chandler’s The Big Sleep:

We keep a file on unidentified bullets nowadays. Some day you might use that gun again. Then you’d be over a barrel.

The metaphor is probably a reference to a prisoner being strapped over a barrel and flogged. Literal references to a barrel being used for flogging date back to the 19th century. This poem from 1869’s Nonsense by Brick Pomeroy uses over a barrel to refer to children being punished by a schoolteacher:

I’d like to be a school-marm,
And with the school-marms stand,
With a bad boy over a barrel
And with a spanker in my hand

Using a barrel to thresh grain, an activity that in action at least is similar to flogging a person, is an even older practice. From R.F.W. Allston’s “The Rice Plant” in Debow’s Review of 4 April 1846:

To procure the most mature rice for seed, a good plan is to thrash the rice over a barrel, or large log, the butt of the sheaf being held in both hands.

Many dictionaries give the origin as a reference to the practice of draping drowning victims over a barrel to clear their lungs of water. This certainly a possiblity and this was indeed a practice that was in use in the 19th century. This quote by a Dr. Charles Lancaster in Appleton’s Journal of 29 May 1869, the same year as the poem quoted above, describes the practice:

Another interesting, perhaps, if not very philosophical mode of treatment is to roll the patient over a barrel, as if he were drowned only in the bowels, and it was expected that, by dislodging the enemy at that point, the citadel of life would soon be recovered.

The flogging metaphor, however, fits the meaning of the modern use much better than the drowning metaphor and therefore seems more likely as the origin.

It is commonly asserted that over a barrel is nautical in origin and refers to sailors being flogged for various breaches of discipline. This is incorrect. There is no evidence to indicate that the phrase was especially used in nautical contexts and the usual practice of the Royal Navy, at least, was to tie sailors to a wooden grating, not a barrel, for flogging. Although, midshipmen would be punished by caning while leaning over a gun barrel. But, the lack of early nautical citations linking the phrase to the punishment of midshipmen make this nautical angle unlikely.

(Source: Oxford English Dictionary, 2nd Edition; Making of America database, Univ. of Michigan)

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