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Where did "as all get-out" come from?
April 19, 2011 4:56 PM   Subscribe

IdiomFilter: What is the origin of the phrase "as all get-out"?

Googling for this has yielded mostly conjecture, common and plausible versions of which include: "get-out" is a euphemism for hell (as in "get outta here" in response to saying an offensive word); and "get-out" refers to an implausible escape.

Etymonline lists get-out in the sense of a high degree of something, but offers no background information.

The expression seems to have originated as simply "as get-out" and then migrated to the more common modern version. According to the American Heritage Dictionary of Idioms, the earliest attested usage is from Joseph C. Neal's Charcoal Sketches (although the dictionary lists the title as Character Sketches). This matches the date given at etymonline of 1838.

Any resident language experts have any further info on this?
posted by nzero to Writing & Language (5 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
 
Yeah, the Historical Dictionary of American Slang has the Neal quote ("We look as elegant and beautiful as get-out") as its first citation; the first with "all" is from Twain (1884, Huckleberry Finn, ch. xxxviii: "We got to dig in like all git-out"). I don't think it's possible to provide an origin in the sense you're looking for other than "somebody said it and it sounded good enough that others imitated it," but I think we can safely ignore ideas like "euphemism for hell."
posted by languagehat at 5:25 PM on April 19, 2011


I think "all" can be used pretty much everywhere as an intensifier (all dressed up, all f'd up, all crazy-like, all up in your face), and it wouldn't surprise me that it was just added on to "get-out" at some point. You might try directing your question to The Language Log.
posted by babbageboole at 6:00 PM on April 19, 2011


Thanks for the quick reply languagehat!

I don't think it's possible to provide an origin in the sense you're looking for other than "somebody said it and it sounded good enough that others imitated it," but I think we can safely ignore ideas like "euphemism for hell."

I did think the "get outta here" bit was kind of a stretch, but could you elaborate on why it might not be a euphemism for hell more generally? I'm pushing the question a bit because I'm hung up on the fact that the phrase "all hell" is used in pretty much the same context, with perhaps a more negative connotation.

And of course, it's precisely why that first somebody said it that I'm curious about.

I'd like to add to this that I've personally always mentally categorized "all get-out" as having something to do with the phrase "all hell breaking loose."

I don't want to sound like I think language has a hard logical basis or that it's not fluid and subjective, but I do feel deeply unsatisfied with just accepting that it simply "sounded good enough that others imitated it" (while simultaneously acknowledging that there may be no good way to know).

And thanks babbageboole, I'll check out your link.
posted by nzero at 7:34 PM on April 19, 2011


> could you elaborate on why it might not be a euphemism for hell more generally?

Of course it could be. It could be almost anything. But etymology requires more than clever ideas, it requires actual provenance—convincing, even if not completely pinned down every step of the way, analysis of how it started out at point A and got to point B. In this case, not only is there no trail of breadcrumbs leading from "hell" to "get-out," there is not even a plausible explanation as to why "get-out" would be used as a euphemism (unlike, say, "heck," where the phonetic similarity is obvious).

> I do feel deeply unsatisfied with just accepting that it simply "sounded good enough that others imitated it"

Of course you do. It's very hard to accept the "origin unknown" that is so common in dictionary etymologies; we humans are hard-wired to want explanations for things, and if we haven't figured out astrophysics yet, we'll decide those bright things in the sky are ornaments placed by gods, or gods themselves, or whatever, rather than say "It sure would be interesting to know what those things are; maybe in a few millenniums we'll figure it out!" But the first step toward having a rational approach to etymology (as to life in general) is to make yourself accept that there are many, many things we will never know the answer to; in Keats's words, "capable of being in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason." To insist on an answer at all costs is to doom yourself to believing a lot of crap.

I just saw this exchange at the Wordorigins.org discussion board (which I highly recommend to anyone interested in these things; in fact, you might try asking your question over there):
omarkiam
A friend of mine the other day wanted to know where the phrase “it’s better than a poke in the eye with a sharp stick” came from. My understanding of the phrase comes from Homer’s Odyssey. When Odysseus and his fellow travelers were trapped in a cave with the one eyed Cyclops Polyphemus they waited for the Cyclops to sleep and sharpening a stake drive it into his eye thereby allowing then to escape. If anyone can shed more light on the matter please let me know.

Syntinen Laulu
Given that every day people get poked in the eye with a sharp stick (it’s one of the leading causes of traumatic blindness worldwide) and always have done, I see no reason to suppose anything of the kind, unless you can produce evidence to connect the two.

omarkiam
Hmmm,
You could be correct but considering the Etymology of the phrase mine goes back to even before the time of Jesus. Therefore I would have to guess that all those other phases are nothing more than take offs of the original thought. Slogans aside.
But there was a happy ending: after several other people disputed the idea, omarkiam responded "I guess I am wrong"!
posted by languagehat at 7:16 AM on April 20, 2011 [4 favorites]


Of course it could be. It could be almost anything. But etymology requires more than clever ideas, it requires actual provenance

Ah, I see what you mean.

But the first step toward having a rational approach to etymology (as to life in general) is to make yourself accept that there are many, many things we will never know the answer to

You're preaching to the choir, brother. On the other hand, that innate curiosity is an important impetus to continued discovery, as long as it's kept in perspective.
posted by nzero at 7:37 AM on April 20, 2011


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