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A slap on the wrist

Posted by Smokey Stover on October 27, 2008 at 15:25

In Reply to: A slap on the wrist posted by Scott on October 27, 2008 at 08:51:

: What is the origin of "a slap on the wrist"?

At least since the 18th century the word "slap" was used figuratively as well as literally. A certain action could be a "slap on the face" or a "slap in the eyes" to me or to someone else, that is, an attack or slur, a censure or reproof, either spoken or written.

The Oxford English Dictionary gives examples from 1736 on. I like this one, by Edmund Burke, from his correspondence of 1791 (publ. 1844) III. 30: You see on what topics they chose to magnify him [Foxe] at York. It is a slap at me."

So a slap on the wrist is a reprimand or reproof, but a weak one. From the OED: "1914 Dialect Notes IV. 112 Slap on the wrist, mild rebuke or criticism." Depending on one's point of view, it can mean a useless attempt to punish or deter, or a welcome absence of more painful punishment.

A slap can be literally administered on the wrist, rather than on the face, let alone the eyes, as when you find an offending hand in the cookie jar--although I suppose cookie jars are more of an American phenomenon than English. I don't know if parents still slap their children, but obviously some naughty behaviors are worse than others, so a literal slap on the wrist is still a feasible way to punish mildly. But it is commonly used today in the figurative sense, ostensibly punishing or reprimanding, but so weakly as to vitiate any sense of forcefulness.