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shameless pleading

Put the wind up

Beyond cold feet.

Dear Word Detective: I know that “put the wind up” means to make someone nervous or upset, but wonder about the origin. I had an elderly aunt who often complained of feeling cold air flowing up her nose (of such tales are word origins made) and have found myself using the phrase “put the wind up someone’s nose” which I now think was my own elaboration. But the question of what or who the wind is being put up and why and where the concept originated remains. — Alex Pirie.

And a great question it is. “Put the wind up,” meaning “to alarm or make nervous,” as well as its close cousin “to get the wind up” (to become alarmed), both date to just after World War I, and are more often heard in the UK than in the US. The origin of windup08.pngthe phrases apparently lies in the armed services slang of WWI (“Shells so close that they thoroughly put the wind up a Life Guardsman in the trench with me,” Wilfred Owen, 1918). But both phrases are still very popular, as can be seen in a recent headline from the UK-based technical website The Register, reporting on US alarm at the theft of a UK government computer containing various secrets: “MoD laptop thefts put the wind up the US.”

Evidently, the origin of “put the wind up” is considered a bit of a mystery. The Oxford English Dictionary is silent on the matter, and most of my reference works don’t even mention the phrase.

I hesitate to even suggest this, because I fear it will awaken the demented munchkins of CANOE (the Committee to Ascribe a Naval Origin to Everything), but it occurred to me upon reading your question that “put the wind up” might have something to do with the age of sail, when the wind rising and filling the sails of a becalmed ship would cause it to begin to move. Perhaps, metaphorically, “put the wind up” described a similar process in an individual.

Fortunately, I don’t have to limp home on my lame theory, because the eminent etymologist of slang Eric Partridge came up with a far better explanation years ago. In his Dictionary of Slang and Unconventional English, Partridge related (and endorsed) the theory of one of his readers that the phrase comes from a sardonic parody of a standard British Army marching song of the WWI period called “The British Grenadiers.” The “improved” version, popular among enlisted men, contained the lines “Father was a soldier, at the Battle of Waterloo, the wind blew up his trousers, and he didn’t know what to do.” Soldiers sang this song as they marched off to war, and soon, according to this theory, anyone who was flustered or anxious was said to “have the wind up his trousers,” eventually shortened to “have (or get) the wind up.” As Partridge’s correspondent notes, the fact that the song definitely existed, and contained those words, makes this theory highly likely to be true.

8 comments to Put the wind up

  • I have to say that I always assumed “put the wind up” referred to dogs, cats and horses who react to sounds or smells carried on the wind. Perhaps this easy association helped popularize the specific phrase that may have had a different origin in a song.

  • Thanx for such an enjoyable article. I found it both illuminating and well versed. I wonder if you can help me with an expression I found which I do not seem to be able to get fully. It says, I wind myself up. It refers to a doctor who starded visiting his terminal patients (something doctors are especially asked to avoid). And he said that before he went on to mention how painful it was the sight of seeing someone so weak and powerless. I thought it meant I controlled myself. Does it? Thanx!

  • Armine

    “I wind myself up” sounds to me like “I brace myself” that is I gather all my faculties for doing something that is hard or unpleasant still necessary to do.

  • El Sid

    I must admit I always assumed that “putting the wind up” came from hunting/stalking deer or similar. You always approach the deer from down wind, if you come from up-wind it might scent you – and it will be startled and run off.

    The OED records the transitive verb “to wind” (short i)as dating from late ME in the sense of perceiving something/somebody by the scent conveyed by the wind. The song may have influenced things somewhere, but the underlying meaning must surely derive from the pursuit of wild animals?

    @hugo martinez/Armine – “To wind up” (long i) has its origins in clockwork machinery like watches and music boxes, which were driven by a coiled spring that literally had to be wound up before they would do anything. It was then used figuratively, for instance a stirring speech to wind up the troops would rouse them before a battle.

    It’s still a common phrase in British English, but the meaning has shifted a bit. It still means to “put under tension”, but for no good reason. The meaning is now closer to “teasing” or playing a practical joke (usually verbal) that preys on someone’s insecurities. So you would wind up a colleague by hiding the teddy bear on their desk or telling them that the boss no longer needs that report they worked on all weekend.

    In Hugo’s case he’s putting himself under tension by visiting these patients, he was upsetting himself for no good reason (as the patients can’t be cured).

    I’ve come across an interesting use of the phrase in a World War I memoir, Bullets and Billets by Bruce Bairnsfather. It was published in 1916 but chapter IV talks about his time on the Western Front between Ypres and Armentieres in November 1914. Even by that time a phenomenon called “wind up” (presumably long “i”) was recognised, a spontaneous outbreak of rifle fire that could extend for miles along the front, “caused entirely by nerves” – started by someone shooting at a shadow and triggering volleys in response.

    I’d not come across the phrase in that sense before, but it perfectly links the original sense of a coiled spring being ready for action, and the modern sense of nervous tension being unleashed to no great purpose. It was obviously in common usage by November 1914, which makes me wonder if it actually dates back to earlier trench warfare such as the Boer War.

    Bairnsfather then comments that it “put the ‘wind up’ me at first” – obviously in the short-i version of the phrase, showing that both were known by 1916 at least.

  • “Putting the wind up” similar to “having the wind up his tail”, is I believe referring to animals – particularly domestic prey animals such as horses, being nervous and lively in the wind. This is because they cannot hear or smell possible danger as easily and the sudden movements and noises that the wind causes, can give them cause to jump, be nervous and behave more erratically.
    If we remember that horses used to be part of people’s everyday life and we would have understood them far more, then we also can see how many other phrases can be equine-related.

  • Canuck

    I naturally subscribed to the CANOE (haha) theory before I even knew there were any theories about the origin of this expression. It’s not really one we use in Canada, though.

  • stu

    I can tell you it is a railway term.

    ‘Getting the wind up’ is the original term, it refers to the phenomenon of entering a railway tunnel and having the wind blowing in the same direction as you are going. In days of steam this was extremely hazardous. In fact railway engineers were instructed to lay down when going through a tunnel to ‘prevent expiring’. In fact there have been documented cases of engine drivers and stokers dying from asphyxiation whilst negotiating tunnels.

    Entering a tunnel when the ‘wind was up’ was the engine drivers’ worst fear. The smoke from the engine would be blown up the tunnel and therefore there would be no supply of fresh air. Presumably the passengers were protected from this by being in an enclosed cabin, but the engine driver and stoker had no such protection.

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