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Over a barrel

Posted by David FG on July 06, 2009 at 19:23

In Reply to: Over a barrel posted by ESC on July 05, 2009 at 18:58:

: : : What is the origin of phrase "to be over a barrel?"
: : : Thank you for this wonderful service.

: : Apparently it is of American origin, and the most likely derivation comes from a form of punishment, or humiliation, involving binding someone's hands and feet and rolling them over a barrel.

: : A person in that situation is completely at the mercy of his captors/tormentors and thus is had 'over a barrel'.

: : DFG

: According to my references (and on this site) it refers to a method of forcing water out of a near drowning victim's lungs.

I agree that this is a frequently cited source of the phrase, but I would quote the following:

"An article in the Trenton Times of New Jersey in August 1885 that explained how to resuscitate a person warned against the technique, clearly a traditional one: "In the first place they should be brought in face downwards, and then laid upon their faces, so that their heads are lower than the nether parts of their bodies, and the water they have swallowed can go out. There need be no rough action to secure this result. In fact, the rolling of a person over a barrel or other rough exercise might be the means of killing them."

Quoted by Michael Quinion in 'World Wide Words'.

And the meaning of having someone 'over a barrel' is much nearer to having them at your mercy than it is to resuscitating them.