Over a barrel

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Over a barrel is an idiom that has uncertain origins. We will look the meaning of the term over a barrel, some possible places where this idiom originated and some examples of its use in sentences.

To have someone over a barrel means to put someone in a helpless position, to put someone in a difficult situation. The origin of the idiom over a barrel is obscure. One theory is that the idiom refers to the practice of draping a drowned man over a barrel in order to clear his lungs of water. Another theory is that is refers to a common hazing practice in college fraternities in the late eighteen-hundreds. Most probably, both of these practices relate to a practice wherein sailors were punished on the high seas by being tied over barrels and flogged.  The idiom over a barrel was used in the 1939 movie The Big Sleep in a context that suggested it referred to the barrel of a gun, though it was a pun. The barrel in over a barrel refers to the container constructed of wood and metal hoops.


I advise ITV4 to get together a Gogglebox-type vehicle for them where they discuss, say, the US Presidential election or the Walloons having the Canadian economy over a barrel, and Hoggard turns the conversation from Black Swans to black pudding. (The Telegraph)

HFO-1234yf is already becoming standard in many new cars sold in the European Union and the United States by all the major automakers, in large part because its developers, Honeywell and Chemours, have automakers over a barrel. (The New York Times)

“David Leyonhjelm, the National Party and the Liberal Party are holding the country over a barrel – a big barrel that can rapidly fire over 11 shots in 11 seconds,” he said. (The Mercury)

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