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Up the spout

Q From Isabel Henniger: What is the history behind the expression up the spout? For example in my mother’s autobiography she wrote that when her thesis advisor lost her thesis in 1930, her hopes for a university position went up the spout.

A Up the spout, gone wrong, ruined, failed or lost, is a slang expression from the British Isles of considerable age, being first recorded early in the nineteenth century. It’s still common:

When your economic sovereignty is up the spout, the smallest negative comment from a foreign leader can create panic among investors and send consumer confidence through the floor.

The Evening Herald (Dublin), 22 Oct. 2012.

To find its origin we must in imagination travel to the low-life world of pre-Dickensian England. Pawnbrokers commonly stored goods that were in hock on an upper floor of their premises, but this required a method by which such items could be moved from their shop counters to storage and back again. This is the way such a device was described in a famous work of in the nineteenth century:

[The chute] reaches from the top of the house of the Pawnbroker (where the goods are deposited for safety till redeemed or sold) to the shop, where they are first received; through which a small bag is dropped upon the ringing of a bell, which conveys the tickets or duplicates to a person above stairs, who, upon finding them, (unless too bulky) saves himself the trouble and loss of time of coming down stairs, by more readily conveying them down.

Real Life in London, by Pierce Egan, 1821.

It was the shape and function of this device, in later years nearer in form to the kitchen lift or dumbwaiter, that caused it to become known to customers and pawnbrokers as the spout. The action of pawning goods was spouting them.

Behold him walking into a pawnbroker’s shop with half-a-dozen pieces of figured waistcoatings on his arm, and a tailor’s thimble on his finger. “Here,” says he, “I’ve got six waistcoats to make, and I must spout one to buy the trimmings; let’s have three shillings.”

Curiosities of London Life, or Phases, Physiological and Social, of the Great Metropolis, by Charles Manby Smith, 1853.

Something that had been pawned was said to have gone up the spout. It was so common for the item not to be redeemed because the owner hadn’t the money to do so that to put something up the spout implied a likely permanent loss.

Much more recently, as a separate development but with implications related to those of the original, up the spout came to mean being pregnant, sometimes an unwelcome development among unmarried women. Like the original, it’s still around:

Euan, Kathryn and Nicholas Blair, the children of the ex-PM, 58, had to endure the horror of knowing that their parents still Did It even though they’re old, when Cherie, 57, got up the spout with Leo at 45.

Daily Mirror, 15 Nov. 2011.

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Copyright © Michael Quinion, 1996–. All rights reserved.
Page created 1 Dec. 2012

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The English language is forever changing. New words appear; old ones fall out of use or alter their meanings. World Wide Words tries to record at least a part of this shifting wordscape by featuring new words, word histories, words in the news, and the curiosities of native English speech.

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Last modified: 1 December 2012.