Give someone the third degree

The expression to give someone the third degree is an American idiom. An idiom is a word, group of words or phrase that has a figurative meaning that is not easily deduced from its literal definition. Often using descriptive imagery, common idioms are words and phrases used in the English language in order to convey a concise idea, and are often spoken or are considered informal or conversational. English idioms can illustrate emotion more quickly than a phrase that has a literal meaning, even when the etymology or origin of the idiomatic expression is lost. An idiom is a metaphorical figure of speech, and it is understood that it is not a use of literal language. Figures of speech have definitions and connotations that go beyond the literal meaning of the words. Mastery of the turn of phrase of an idiom or other parts of speech is essential for the English learner. Many English as a Second Language students do not understand idiomatic expressions such as beat around the bush, once in a blue moon, let the cat out of the bag, spill the beans, face the music, barking up the wrong tree, kick the bucket, hit the nail on the head, under the weather, piece of cake, when pigs fly, and raining cats and dogs, as they attempt to translate them word for word, which yields only the literal meaning. In addition to learning vocabulary and grammar, one must understand the phrasing of the figurative language of idiomatic phrases in order to know English like a native speaker.  We will examine the definition of the term give someone the third degree, where it may have come from, and some examples of its use in sentences.

To give someone the third degree means to interrogate them ruthlessly, to grill them without mercy, perhaps with threats or bodily harm. The idiom give someone the third degree came into use around the turn of the twentieth century in the United States to describe interrogations by some police departments. The origin of the idiom is uncertain. Some credit Washington D.C. police chief Richard H. Sylvester, claiming that he divided police procedures into first degree or arrest, second degree or transportation to jail, and third degree or interrogation. A much more plausible explanation is the link with Freemasonry, in which the Third Degree level of Master Mason is achieved by undergoing a rigorous examination by the elders of the lodge. Related idiomatic phrases are gives someone the third degree, gave someone the third degree, giving someone the third degree.


Steven performed the walk of shame just as Lushion gave him the third degree about him being caught in a compromising situation.  (The Canyon News)

Even when I was applying for the disability pension, the woman was really giving me the third degree, and I said, look, it’s not a badge of honour, you know.  (The Guardian)

Rather than honor his community service, some council members gave him the third degree and suggested he didn’t really need a parking space if he could serve as a volunteer firefighter. (The York Daily Record)

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