Search us!

Search The Word Detective and our family of websites:

This is the easiest way to find a column on a particular word or phrase.

To search for a specific phrase, put it between quotation marks.






Comments are OPEN.

We deeply appreciate the erudition and energy of our commenters. Your comments frequently make an invaluable contribution to the story of words and phrases in everyday usage over many years.

Please note that comments are moderated, and will sometimes take a few days to appear.



shameless pleading






I wuz framed,

Dear Word Detective: There is a British expression for “setting someone up” to take the blame for some offense, which is “stitching them up.” I read your explanation for “grassing up” someone, which is the equivalent of snitching. But “stitching” is more like “framing” someone. I look forward to learning the origin(s) of this expression. — Scott Jones, Austin, Texas (really from Philadelphia).

Ah, Philadelphia. I’ve only been there a couple of times, but it made quite an impression. My primary takeaway, as the biz folk say, was that many of your hometown’s motorists have serious perceptual impairments. Some of them seemed to be trying to drive sideways.

I suppose, being the responsible sort, that I should recap my explanation of “grassing,” that British colloquialism for “snitching,” specifically acting as an informer for the police. While one might imagine a connection to the very old expression “snake in the grass” (meaning “a sly betrayer”), this “grass” is actually short for “grasshopper,” rhyming slang for “copper” (i.e., a cop), and “grassing” means working for (or actually being) the police. (Rhyming slang, common among the working classes of Britain and Australia, uses a system of rhymes to disguise the words actually meant.)

To “stitch” originally meant “to stab or pierce,” based on the noun “stitch,” which developed from the same Germanic roots that gave us “stick.” A “stitch” could be a wound (as from being poked with something sharp), a sharp pain in the side, a fit of laughing (e.g., “in stitches,” probably from the pain of prolonged laughing) or each loop left by a threaded needle as it passes through fabric, etc. “To stitch,” similarly, means “to fasten together with stitches,” as in making clothes from fabric or shoes from leather, or closing a wound by using surgical stitching. The phrase “to stitch up,” first appearing in the late 16th century, initially meant “to put together by sewing,” with the implication that the work is done in a hurry. Subsequent senses also carried overtones of emergency repair work or a “rush job,” as well as of restricting, restraining or closing off something (“I am sure he would rather have stitch’d up his lips, or bit off his tongue, than have spoken a word…” 1712).

The Oxford English Dictionary (OED) defines “stitch-up” in the sense you mention as “An act of manipulating a situation in order to reach a desired outcome, especially by dishonorable or dishonest means, such as abuse of a position of power or influence; a conspiracy or plot, especially to incriminate a person on false evidence.” In common use since at least 1980, “stitch-up” (it’s usually hyphenated) is a bit broader than a “frame-up,” which is usually purely a question of false evidence and/or malicious prosecution. A “stitch-up” can also be a corrupt arrangement that thwarts justice but isn’t necessarily illegal (“[He] accused the Government of a ‘cynical stitch-up with BP management’ over the job losses and asset sales.” 1989).

2 comments to Stitch-up

  • Moley

    There’s a more extreme version – “stitched up like a kipper”.

    If you’re not familiar, a kipper is a smoked herring, which is removed of guts and head (but not skin or tail) and opened out to a rough fan shape before curing. They’re not stitched back together though, so the expression doesn’t make a lot of sense at face value.

    More explanations here:

  • tom

    The “stitched up” part comes from the fact that after being gutted the kipper is hung up with string (stitched up) so as to be able to hang on a rail with many others to be smoked over a smoky fire.

    i.e., completely conned by a cunning person and “stitched up” so you cannot do a thing about it!

Leave a Reply




You can use these HTML tags

<a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <s> <strike> <strong>

Please support
The Word Detective

by Subscribing.


Follow us on Twitter!




Makes a great gift! Click cover for more.

400+ pages of science questions answered and explained for kids -- and adults!