Belt

Tee many martoonies.

Dear Word Detective: How did the word “belt” come to mean taking a shot of alcohol? — Robert Schultz.

That is, as we say in the question-answering business, a darn good question. If I were a drinking man, I’d drink to that question. But I’m not, so I won’t, and neither should you. Also please refrain from using a cell phone and/or driving while reading this column. Contents may cause drowsiness, insomnia, hair loss, hair growth, unusual thoughts and possibly an odd burning smell. Tell your doctor if you notice a change in the length of your arms or legs, because doctors always know the best tailors.

belt08.pngFor a small word, “belt” has spawned a remarkable number of uses, both literal and figurative, over the centuries since it first appeared in Old English. Ultimately rooted in the Latin “balteus,” meaning “sword belt” or “girdle,” in English “belt” at first was applied to any sort of leather strap around the waist, whether intended to hold up a weapon or simply the wearer’s pants. By the 14th century, a special use of belts to signify rank or athletic distinction had emerged, a sense still found in the “Black Belt,” etc., of the martial arts. Sports also gave us the phrase “to hit below the belt” (to fight unfairly), while “to tighten one’s belt” has meant “to cut back on expenditures” or “to endure hunger” since the 19th century. “Belt” has also been used for a wide variety of things resembling a belt, from the humble “conveyor belt” in a factory to an entire geographic swath of a country, as in “Bible Belt.”

“Belt” as a verb originally meant “to encircle with a belt,” especially as a symbol of honor or rank, or to mark off an area by stripping the bark off of trees. But the use of the common belt as a weapon, whether to punish children adults, soon made “belt” a synonym for “thrash or beat.” This led to “belt” meaning “to hit strongly” as well as the more genteel “belt” meaning “to sing or speak with great vigor” (“Bessie really belted out that song”). Somewhere between the “punch” and “sing” senses of “belt” emerged, in the mid-1800s, “belt” as a shortened form of “belt the bottle,” meaning “to drink liquor heavily” (“Jack takes to belting the old grape right freely to get his zing back,” Damon Runyon, Guys and Dolls). This “belt” paralleled the use of “hit” in the same sense, as in “hit the sauce.”

This verb sense of “belt” meaning “to drink” then led, by the 1920s, to the use of “belt” as a noun meaning “a drink of liquor,” especially a quick, possibly furtive drink (Bob stepped behind the bleachers and took a quick belt from his flask”).

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