The Grammarphobia Blog

Curly Bill gets it in the neck

Q: I was wondering about the origin of the phrase “to get it in the neck.” More important, how old is it?

A: The expression, which was first recorded in the early 1880s, means “to be thoroughly bested or victimized, as by overwhelming force, swindling, death, etc.,” according to the Random House Historical Dictionary of American Slang.

The first citation in the Oxford English Dictionary is from a three-line headline in the May 26, 1881, issue of the Arizona Weekly Star: “Curly Bill / This noted desperado ‘Gets it in the Neck’ / at Gayleyville.” (I’ve gone to the original source and expanded the citation.)

Another desperado, Jim Wallace, shot Curly Bill as he was leaving a saloon, according to the Arizona weekly, “the ball entering penetrating the left side of Curly Bill’s neck and passing through, came out the right cheek, not breaking the jawbone.”

So, the OED’s earliest citation for the phrase refers to the literal shooting of somebody in the neck. Could this shooting have inspired the expression we have now for being defeated, victimized, and so on?

Well, Curly Bill (actually William Brocius), was indeed a noted desperado. But I suspect that the headline writer thought it would be entertaining to use in a literal way a figurative expression that was already in the air, if not in print.

In fact, six months after that headline appeared in Kansas, an item in a New York City tabloid suggested that the expression had been in common use for a while.

Here’s the OED citation from the Nov. 25, 1882, issue of the National Police Gazette: “An ‘Artless’ Young Girl Gives it to Her ‘in the Neck,’ as the Sports Say.”

I think the most probable origin of the expression is the earlier use of “to get it” in the sense of to be shot or killed or punished.

The first citation in the Random House slang dictionary for “to get it,” meaning to be shot or killed, is from this 1844 description of a panther hunt: “I’ll git him! Bang! Oh, dam you! you’ve got it! I know you is! you aint shakin’ that tail for nothin’ ! Yes, thar’s blood on the snow!”

The earliest citation in Random House for “to get it,” meaning to be punished, is from an 1861 book about the working poor in London: “I was flogged as a convict, and he as a soldier; and when we were both at the same hospital after the flogging, and saw each other’s backs, the other convicts said to me ‘D— it, you’ve got it this time.’ ”

As for the “neck” business, I imagine it’s an allusion to a vulnerable part of the anatomy, as in a human who’s hanged by the neck or a chicken whose neck is wrung or axed.

Both Brewer’s Dictionary of Phrase and Fable and Eric Partridge’s A Dictionary of Slang and Unconventional English mention the chicken connection, but we don’t know for sure which, if any, specific neck inspired this expression.

In conclusion, here’s an excerpt from The Inimitable Jeeves, a 1923 story collection by one of my favorite writers, P. G. Wodehouse:

“It seemed to me that everything was absolutely for the best in the best of all possible worlds. But have you ever noticed a rummy thing about life? I mean the way something always comes along to give it you in the neck at the very moment when you’re feeling most braced about things in general. No sooner had I dried the old limbs and shoved on the suiting and toddled into the sitting-room than the blow fell.”

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