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The meaning and origin of the expression: Full tilt

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Full tilt

Meaning

At top speed; with maximum energy.

Origin

When we describe something as 'tilted' we usually mean 'inclined at an angle' and it could be said to be at 'full tilt' when it was about to topple over. The expression 'full tilt' is most often heard these days in regard to the Full Tilt poker game. Of course, that isn't the origin of the term, although the source is related to another type of poker - the lance used in medieval jousting.

full tiltTilt derives from the Old English word tealt or tylte, meaning to totter unsteadily. It isn't surprising that tilting was the early name for jousting, as the sport involves two knights on horseback charging at each other and trying to topple their opponent off his horse. This is the same meaning of tilt as in the eponymous hero's 'tilting at windmills' in Cervantes' Don Quixote.

The earliest references to 'the joust' (or 'just') come from the 13th century and the alternative name 'the tilt' three centuries later. Henry Ellis edited a 19th century work called Original Letters Illustrative of English History. In that he printed a letter, dated 1511, which includes this text:

"Knightes shall present themself... in harneys for the Tylte."

The History of Tom Thumb, dated around 1600, contains the earliest reference to 'full tilt':

"The cook was running on full tilt, When Tom fell from the air."

The 19th century expression, 'full pelt' now has virtually the same meaning as 'full tilt'. To pelt is to attack by vigorously throwing things at someone. Oddly though, 'full pelt' doesn't mean 'throw as fast as possible' but 'run as fast as possible', especially when making an attack. Thomas Hood's poem The Tale of a Trumpet, circa 1845, contains the earliest known record of this:

Just fancy a horse that comes full pelt
But as quiet as if he was shod with felt