Q From Lou Jandera: I’ve heard a rumour, meaning I was unable to verify the source, that the phrase to put a sock in it referred to early gramophones that had no volume control. It is said that people who were annoyed by the high decibels produced by these machines would suggest that the person operating the player put a sock, rolled up into a ball, inside the horn producing the sound. Seems like a good fit to me. Any way this can be researched or verified?
A I can’t give a copper-bottomed, guaranteed answer, but there’s enough evidence to give an excellent pointer to the real source.
The story about the gramophone has been so widely reproduced that it’s unsurprising people accept it. It’s a plausible tale that instantly produces a delightfully comic image of some grumpy parent stuffing hosiery into the horn to muffle the kids’ noisy records. Pre-electric gramophones lacked volume controls and I’m told they could be loud enough that finding some way to minimise the sound was desirable. But the evidence suggests the story came into being as a well-meaning but misconceived attempt to explain the origin of an existing saying.
The first examples of it appear in 1919, virtually simultaneously in the UK and Australia, rather late for it to be connected to gramophones, which had by then been around for some time:
The expression “Put a sock in it”, meaning “Leave off talking, singing or shouting”.
The Athenaeum (London), 8 Aug. 1919.
The need to define the expression suggests it was then new in the UK. Two further early appearances point to its true source. The first is from an Australian newspaper article that humorously conflates many items of wartime services slang.
There was only time for a dixie of gunfire and a hurried dig-in-the-grave, no chance of pozzy and rooty at the Cain-and-Able to-day. It had begun to rain, and some chaps called out: “Send it down David!” But others shouted: “Put a sock in it!” And, after a lot of grousing, we started off.
The Port Macquarie News, 14 Jun. 1919.
The second is from a novel set in the trenches of the Western Front in France in 1916. Frederic Manning — an Australian — was there during his service with the King’s Shropshire Light Infantry. The text as he wrote it could not be published in his lifetime because of the authentic bad language it contained:
“I’m not miserable, corporal,” said little Martlow: “We’re not dead yet. On’y I’m not fightin’ for any fuckin’ Beljums, see. One o’ them buggers wanted to charge me five frong for a loaf o’ bread.”
“Well, put a sock in it. We’ve ’ad enough bloody talk now.”
The Middle Parts of Fortune, by Frederic Manning, 1929.
These two citations strongly suggest an origin among servicemen in the First World War, and explain how the expression got into Civvy Street simultaneously in Britain and Australia in 1919 — it was carried to both by homecoming soldiers.
Several other expressions of the time had similar associations. Eric Partridge pointed to the slightly earlier put a bung in it and we know that put a cork in it was in use for a while. It in all three cases is clearly the mouth.