Q: You were discussing the expression “over a barrel” on WNYC the other day, and it got me thinking about the county fairs where a visitor can exercise his ball-throwing skills by trying to dunk someone standing on a plank over a barrel filled with water. Is this a possible explanation for the origin of the phrase?
A: Well, the person on the plank is indeed over a barrel – that is, in a precarious position. But I don’t think that’s the origin of the expression.
Since the last Leonard Lopate Show, I’ve had a chance to check out the expression in the Oxford English Dictionary, which describes it as primarily American slang meaning helpless or in someone’s power.
The phrase, according to the OED’s lexicographers, is “apparently in allusion to the state of a person placed over a barrel to clear his lungs of water after being rescued from drowning.”
The expression is relatively recent. The first published reference is from Raymond Chandler’s 1939 novel, 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.”
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