Q&A: The origin of ‘under my belt’

Each week here at the Australian Writers’ Centre, we dissect and discuss, contort and retort, ask and gasp at the English language and all its rules, regulations and ridiculousness. It’s a celebration of language, masquerading as a passive-aggressive whinge about words and weirdness. This week, it's all about the belt..

Q: Hi AWC, what’s the story with saying you have something “under your belt”? For example, “it was valuable having that experience under my belt.”

A: The phrase dates back to late 1700s and early 1800s Scotland, but it didn’t start off meaning what you’re talking about.

Q: Oh really?

A: Yes really. In fact, it was a lot more literal back at the start – referring to how many drinks could be consumed and presumably stored (in the stomach) under one’s belt.

Q: That does sound rather Scottish.

A: Quite. Even earlier in the 1700s, there had been a saying that stated “your tongue is not under my belt” – a way of saying that you couldn’t be kept quiet.

Q: Not sure what putting your tongue there would achieve, but anyway. 

A: As we moved into the 1800s, the things that you could have under your belt expanded to include food. One of the earliest examples of this comes from 1839.

Q: But what about having attained experience?

A: That figurative meaning would take nearly a century to appear – around the 1920s and early 1930s. Much like having food safely stored in your stomach (under your belt), It’s likely that having experience was seen as something you could similarly store once gained.

Q: So did this meaning just replace the food one?

A: It’s definitely the more commonly heard today, but if you look in the Macquarie Dictionary, you will still see both definitions listed – the first being “to consume food” and the second to “possess a qualification or achievement”.

Q: Ah okay.

A: Curiously however, the American Merriam-Webster dictionary only lists the second definition – perhaps it’s Australia’s link to Britain that retains the foodie meaning.

Q: While we’re on the subject of belts, what about hitting “below the belt”?

A: That one has an obvious origin – from pugilism.

Q: Breeding pugs?

A: Haha, no. Boxing! It dates back to 1889.

Q: Why IS boxing also called “pugilism”?

A: Fair question! It comes from “pugil” – the Latin word for boxer or fist-fighter (related to “pugnus” for fist). Pugilism was a big deal in Greek times (first appearing in the Olympics of 688BCE) and later during the Roman Empire. The sport then faded until its resurgence in the 1800s.

Q: Is “pugilism” still used as a word today?

A: Yes, although sometimes more in a purposefully figurative way – such as for two politicians exchanging verbal “blows” and so on.

Q: Okay, so back to “below the belt”…

A: Ah yes. Macquarie Dictionary lists this phrase as meaning anything unfair or against the rules. And it’s from the 1867 Queensberry rules of boxing that state that hitting below the belt or waistband is banned.

Q: Finally, what about “tightening one’s belt”?

A: This means to spend less or be frugal – and also seems to date back to the 1880s, but likely didn’t gain widespread use until the Great Depression of the 1930s. It actually brings us full circle.

Q: Like a belt!

A: Haha exactly. Because we started off with putting food “under your belt”. However, when times are tough, you spend less and eat less. As a result, you drop some weight and literally tighten your belt!

Q: That actually makes sense!

A: Yep, that’s quite rare in English.

Q: Oh, finally, what about if I go to karaoke and “belt out” a tune?

A: This one is more recent – around 1949 – and comes from the verb for belt, which since the 1830s has meant to figuratively “thrash or hit” something. Earlier still, it was literally hitting things with a belt.

Q: Ouch. That reminds me of my father scolding me for making a belt out of $100 notes. 

A: Oh really?

Q: Yes. He said it was a waist of money! Bahahahaaaa.

A: Where’s that belt…

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