Over a barrel


What's the meaning of the phrase 'Over a barrel'?

To be ‘over a barrel’ is to be left without choice; in someone else’s power.

What's the origin of the phrase 'Over a barrel'?

People used to be punished ‘over a
barrel’ and this is where the expression
derives from.

This is an American phrase and first appeared in the late-19th century. It alludes to the actual situation of being draped over a barrel, either to empty the lungs of someone who has been close to drowning, or to give a flogging. Either way, the position of helplessness and in being under someone else’s control is what is being referred to.

An example of such a literal “over the barrel” experience was recorded in the Delaware newspaper The Daily Republican, July 1886, which reported the initiation ceremony of a college fraternity:

He was bound hand and foot and rolled over a barrel. Next he was stripped naked and placed upon a cake of ice… and branded on his back with the fraternity emblem.

Soon after that ‘over a barrel’ took on the figurative meaning of ‘in trouble; without any hope of deliverance. This usage is recorded in The Seattle Post-Intelligencer, January 1893, in a story of an unfaithful wife:

The good, true, loving wife she appeared to be, being, to use a slang phrase “over a barrel.” The woman who is “over a barrel” was Mrs. Nellie Brundage, and the man “not her husband” was S. R. Clute.

The modern-day usage of ‘over a barrel’ has softened somewhat. It is now used to refer to anyone in a situation where they have little choice.

Trend of over a barrel in printed material over time

Gary Martin is a writer and researcher on the origins of phrases and the creator of the Phrase Finder website. Over the past 26 years more than 700 million of his pages have been downloaded by readers. He is one of the most popular and trusted sources of information on phrases and idioms.

Gary Martin

Writer and researcher on the origins of phrases and the creator of the Phrase Finder website. Over the past 26 years more than 700 million of his pages have been downloaded by readers. He is one of the most popular and trusted sources of information on phrases and idioms.