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shameless pleading

Knock for a loop / knock someone’s socks off

Up in the air, Junior Birdmen.

Dear Word Detective: Where does the phrase “to knock someone’s socks off” originate and what exactly does it mean? — Angie.

Dear Word Detective: I just used “threw me for a loop” in an intertubes comment, then wondered if it was “through me for a loop” or something else. The internet says I wrote it correctly, but took a pass on where it’s from (my search was brief). You and your readers have used the phrase, but you don’t seem to have addressed its origins. Where does (or might) the phrase come from? — TB.

Hey kids, it’s twofer! That’s right, two questions answered (we hope) in one column. And that’s just the beginning. In the coming months, we’ll be adding more and more questions to every column, until they’re stacked up like incoming flights over LaGuardia. We’re just doing our part to fight the depress…. I mean recession, by conserving pixels or something. In fact, today only, we’ll even throw in the origin of “twofer,” which originally, back in the 1890s, meant two cheap cigars sold for the price of one decent one (“two for one”).

“Socks” are, of course, short stockings covering the foot and reaching usually to the ankle, though knee-socks (which really just cover the calf) are also popular. It sounds like a lame joke, but the root of “sock” is simply the Latin “soccus,” which meant a kind of low, soft slipper (which is what “sock” meant when it first appeared in print in Old English). Our modern sense of “sock” as a stocking usually worn under shoes arose in the 14th century.

The phrase “to knock someone’s socks off” first appeared in the mid-19th century with the meaning “to beat thoroughly; to vanquish,” especially in a fistfight, implying violence so extreme that the loser would not only have his shoes knocked off, but his socks as well. The phrase was soon adapted to mean simply “decisively defeat” in non-violent contexts, such as an election, and today it is also used in the more positive sense of “to amaze, delight or strongly impress” (“Bob’s harmonica rendition of the Goldberg Variations really knocked the judges’ socks off”).

To be “thrown for a loop” or “knocked for a loop” refers to being bewildered, dazzled, disoriented and shocked by some event (“AT&T and T-Mobile were thrown for a loop last week when the Department of Justice sued to block AT&T’s planned acquisition of T-Mobile,” CNET, 9/5/11). The phrase first appeared in print in the 1920s, and comes from what the Oxford English Dictionary terms “a centrifugal railway,” but which is, no doubt, better known as a “roller coaster.” The “loop” on roller coaster runs is the point where the coaster arcs upward through a complete circle, leaving passengers upside down at its apex. The term was initially used in the literal roller coaster sense and then to describe aerobatic maneuvers by pilots “looping the loop,” and finally in boxing to mean a powerful punch that downed an opponent, before acquiring its modern “OMG!” usage.

By way of an interesting footnote to “knocked for a loop,” many people have pointed out that the similar phrase “head over heels,” meaning to be figuratively turned upside down by something (usually love) actually makes no sense. Most of us, after all, spend all day with our heads above (“over”) our heels. In fact, the phrase, when it first appeared in the mid-14th century, took the far more logical form “heels over head,” and it was only an inept author’s reversal of it to “head over heels” in 1771 that gave us the modern form. It also didn’t help that Davy Crockett (of coonskin cap fame) used the mangled “head over heels” form (“I soon found myself head over heels in love with this girl”) in his 1834 autobiography.

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