putting the boot in

I haven't much time this evening, so I'll take advantage of the fact that reader Frank Pennycook (of Salisbury, UK) practically wrote an entry for me back in August, when he wrote to ask:
Is it correct that the phrase to put the boot in is not used in the US? If so, is there an equivalent?
Yes, it's correct that that is a BrE phrase. The Collins Cobuild Dictionary defines it as:
If someone puts the boot in, they attack another person by saying something cruel, often when the person is already feeling weak or upset.
Frank helpfully supplied some examples:
Mr Brown deployed a number of rehearsed lines against his two "rivals", the suggestion being that it will do him no harm to crush the left. But up against Mr Meacher - surprisingly hapless - and Mr McDonnell, there seemed little point, and each time he put the boot in I wanted to shout 'please don't hurt them'. The audience was overwhelmingly with the Chancellor. [Benedict Brogan, Daily Mail, 13 May 2007]

But European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso has rejected the proposal in the strongest possible terms. Just seconds after the foreign secretary sat down he put the boot in, calling the proposal "unacceptable". [Mark Mardell, BBC News, 05 December 2005]
In answer to Frank's second question, I can't think of an equivalent that is just AmE, but Frank describes it rather well as:
metaphorically kicking one's adversary while they are on the ground
So, to kick [someone] when [they're] down is a close alternative, though not exclusively AmE or BrE. Another near-equivalent is to twist (or turn) the knife, which again is not exclusively AmE or BrE.

So, as far as I can tell, BrE has at least one more idiom than AmE does for attacking someone in a weakened state. No comment. Unless you can think of a strictly AmE idiom for this sentiment?


  1. how about "to rub salt in someone's wound" or "to add insult to injury"? Are either of these strictly AmE?

  2. Both idioms are also used in Br.Eng. “Rubbing salt into a wound” probably meant acting with good intentions, but with painful results, as salt was used for its antiseptic qualities. I think nowadays the expression is on a par with “putting the knife in”:” kicking a man when he is down” etc..

  3. While it isn't synonymous with "salting the wound," Does BrE have something like
    "put a fork in him (he's done)?"

  4. This could also tie-in somewhat with the previous blog about "dogpiling"

    When you dogpile on someone, or "join the dogpile" the person is usually already under scrutiny.

    It is just that "kicking someone when they are down" can be for any number of people, even just one, whereas dogpiling usually omplies a larger number.

  5. The phrase comes from the skinheads of the 1960s and 70s. They habitually wore Dr Marten boots with steel toe-caps (known as 'bovver boots'), and in a fight would 'put the boot in' once an opponent had been knocked to the ground.

  6. What's your evidence for that, Martinn?

  7. I remember hearing "put a fork in me, I'm done" on Friends; I assumed it just meant "I'm finished","my task is complete".

    I would have guessed "dogpiling" was an unusual sexual practice.

    John Ayto says "put the boot in" is attested from 1916; but "Medicine, Science, and the Law" (1960) says " The frequency of this type of assault appears to me to be increasing, the expression " putting the boot in " is now well recognised by the police as in common usage by hooligans and gangs of teddy-boys"

  8. I think that "running up the score" is similar, but I've normally seen that only in literal usages and I don't know whether it is principally AmE. A search on "ran up the score" site:*.uk got five GHits, while without the site restriction, it got over 18K, which seems indicative.

    The opposite of the literal "running up the score" is usually something metaphorical, though, like "call[ing] off the dogs" or "tak[e/ing] your foot off the gas", which struck me as interesting.

  9. I've no documentary evidence I'm afraid, Lynne, only anecdotal.

    I grew up in the 1960s and 70s in an industrial town with two football teams (Nottingham), and skinhead football supporters were an inescapable part of working-class youth culture of the time. I was never the victim of a skinhead attack myself, but I knew some who were.

    Incidentally, I saw The Who at the Charlton Athletic football ground in 1976. It was part of a tour of UK football stadia that summer, under the name "Who Put The Boot In".
    more here

  10. I thought it sounded a bit like a folk etymology, martinn, and mollymooly's evidence seems to support that it was around before skinheads. So, I'll go with the harder evidence! (Incidentally Erin McKean's recent column about antedating might be interesting to some here... Requires free registration.)

    Doug, running up the score is an entirely unknown phrase to me!

  11. "Doug, running up the score is an entirely unknown phrase to me!"

    Not a football fan (real football, not Association football, or League football, or Union football, or ...), I take it? 8-)

    When one American football team dramatically outmatches another, there may come a time during the game that it is clear that the outcome is no longer in doubt, but there is time left on the clock. If you continue to play your best players at full speed, you may be accused of "running up the score" or playing to maximize the embarrassment of your opponent, since playing to win is no longer an issue. This is usually deemed poor sportsmanship.

    When you take your starting players out of the game, stop calling plays likely to result in more scoring, and start calling plays that maximize the time run off the clock with each play, you are said to be "calling off the dogs" or "taking your foot off the gas" (among other metaphors).

    (I hope that explanation was actually useful rather than being an egg-sucking tutorial; please accept my preemptive apology if it was the latter.)

  12. doug: Perhaps an equivalent of "running up the score" is "running away with it", also only used in sports contexts; but I think that's also used in America.

  13. For me, "running away with it" or "running away with the game" has a very different connotation than "running up the score". The former indicate a large victory, to be sure, but don't imply the gratuitous infliction of pain that the last does.

    If you are running away with the game, but then take your foot off the gas when the victory is assured, that's just a comfortable win. If you are running away with the game and then decide to floor it* to run up the score, that's unsportsmanlike.

    I think this is pretty standard AmE (sports commentator subdialect), but I don't know whether that subdialect is shared with other dialects.

    * AmE? = Push the accelerator pedal to the floor (metaphorically), in case that usage isn't ubiquitous.

  14. Doug, Doug, "real football" is a game played with two things, as evidenced by the name: a ball, and feet. American "football" teams have one player who uses his feet, and he does so for a single kick perhaps a few times in a game as part of the "special team." So, using the foot in the American game is seen as something "special," not an integral part of the game. REAL football is played with the feet. And is known as football (translated into the local language) in almost every country in the world. And is played in every country in the world.

    Case rested.

    Sorry, Lynne, I know this is one hundred per cent off topic, but some chauvinistic things cannot be let lie. And arguing about which game is real football is surely better than putting the boot in.

  15. Almost 18 hours before an Association football fan takes the bait. Poor trolling grounds; I'll have to trawl next time.

  16. There is some question about the origin of "football" in "foot" kicking "ball", surprisingly. According to Wikipedia, which is of course 100% reliable, it may originate with games that were simply played on foot, as opposed to horseback, and might not have anything to do with kicking at all.

    I'm not convinced, but there it is.


    The more precise term is "soccer", a British word. "Football" can mean any of a dozen or so different codes.

  17. Ach - one of the resaons I have enjoyed reading this bolg has been the lack of nationalistic sniping and trolling.

    We even managed to pretty much stay away from it during the 'Brits' discussion, so it really is disappointing to see deliberate trolling.

  18. When I see "to put the boot in", it doesn't resonate (AmE). But "to put the boot ON" suggests a car boot that the police attach when someone has too many unpaid parking tickets (see, e.g., http://www.hackaday.com/2005/02/24/hacking-a-car-boot/); interestingly, a car boot in BrE I believe means some sort of second-hand goods sale (garage sale, yard sale, flea market in AmE).

  19. In BrE a car's boot is the equivalent of the AmE trunk.

    A Car Boot Sale - is a sort of market where all the traders turn up with the goods in the boot of their car. It was originally intended for ordinary people to sell on their excess gear second hand. Now they are full of traders, who generally turn up in large vans.

    I think Lynneguist covered in in one of her earlier posts.

  20. The Australian writer used the phrase "Put in the boot!" when reporting his 'Sentimental Bloke', c. 1910. The Bloke (very working-class) had taken his Doreen to the theatre, and was barracking for Romeo in the Montague/Capulet brawl in 'Romeo and Juliet'. (Other theatre-goers disapproved.)

  21. roger green's American "car boot" is called a "wheel clamp" in Britain; though that name may also be used of a steering-wheel clamp used as an anti-theft device.

  22. not really an idiom, but i have heard, the admonishment 'don't kick a man when he is down'

    --and have been chastised sarcastically-- "good job, X, Kicking a man when he is already down"

    Same idea...

  23. I guess "beating a dead horse" has a different connotation, though this conversation puts me in mind of the phrase. It is used metaphorically, it think, to mean there is no point in continuing to argue?

    And it is probably not American English as it comes from a Russian novel - though I'm hard pressed to recall which one. Is it Crime and Punishment?

    If I'm pulling this off center or off topic, just ignore me.

  24. I would say "hit him while he's down" rather than "kick him when he's down." Definitely hit, definitely while. It's not because I'm into boxing or anything; I've never much been into sports. Grew up in USA, northern Illinois, now living in Missouri, possibly some family influences from southeastern South Dakota.

  25. Marc B. Leavitt20 March, 2011 16:39

    Hi Lynne:

    It's a little more violent (but then we Amuricans ARE more violent), but I would offer the phrase "he cut his legs off" as a possible aLternative to "put the boot in." But I must say, I have heard or read the British expression, and I think we should adopt it here. Its understatement is very civilized.

  26. martinn's literally rather than figuratively kicking someone is more often expressed in Canada (and maybe the U.S.?) as "to put the boots to someone".

  27. This comment has been removed by the author.

  28. The OED considers put or sink in the boot as probably of Australian or New Zealand origin. There's a quote from 1916 by a clergyman pretending to be a roughneck. I think it's worth quoting more than the OED sentence. The hero has been to see Romeo and Juliet.

    A tug namcd Tyball (cousin to the skirt)
    Sprags 'em an' makes a start to sling off dirt.
    Nex' minnit therc's a reel ole ding-dong go—
    'Arf round or so.
    Mick Curio, 'e gets it in the neck,
    "Ar' rats!" 'e sez, an' passes in 'is check.

    Quite natchril, Romeo gits wet as 'ell.
    "It's me or you!" 'e 'owls, an' wiv a yell,
    Plunks Tyball through the gizzard wiv 'is sword,
    '0w I ongcored!
    "Put in the boot!" I sez, "Put in the boot!"
    "'Ush!" sez Doreen ... "Shame!" sez somc silly coot.

  29. I've deleted a posting that starts with a confusing typo. Hopefully, my revised version has now appeared. I see now that it serves as a supplement to anthea's post above.

    The full poem can be read here.

  30. Phrase comes from newspaper headlines during a murder court case, sorry can't find date. Man in West London was kicked to death during a fight, one of the people envolved was reported as saying, 'Put the boot in!'


The book!

View by topic



AmE = American English
BrE = British English
OED = Oxford English Dictionary (online)