Sweating bullets

That large caliber glow

Dear Word Detective: Tonight my wife was complaining about the unseasonal spring heat, saying she was “sweating bullets.” Of course I know what that means (sweating profusely); but what suddenly occurred to me was that I could not entirely make the image evoked by the phrase make sense. Sweating flying off you at the speed of a bullet? Sweating in fear because you might get shot? Nothing seemed likely, and I thought maybe it had mutated from some earlier phrase that made more sense, but a bit of poking about the internet yielded no more feasible results. “A mystery,” I thought to myself, and what does every linguistic mystery (not to mention the phrase “sweating bullets” itself) need? Why, everybody’s favorite gumshoe, of course. Will you take the case? — Kyle.


Harder than it looks.

Gumshoe, eh? You know what’s sad? I know that “gumshoe” meaning “detective” comes from 19th century underworld slang, and originally meant a shoe with a soft gum-rubber sole that allowed the wearer to sneak around noiselessly, either to rob or, conversely, to investigate crimes. But when I hear the word “gumshoe,” my first thought is invariably of stepping in chewing gum on a sidewalk, something that happened to me fairly often when I lived in New York City. Now, of course, I live in rural Ohio, where there are many, many things one can step in that are far worse than chewing gum, but I still think of New York City sidewalks when I hear “gumshoe.”

Onward. I guess your wife never heard the old adage about hot weather and proper vocabulary etiquette that goes, “Horses sweat, men perspire, women glow.” We’ll just assume that she was glowing quite brightly. Strictly speaking, however, she was probably not “sweating bullets” unless your house was under siege by either the SWAT team or velociraptors. The generally accepted meaning of “sweating bullets” is “to be extremely worried or anxious; to be suffering anxiety because of imminent danger” or, secondarily, “to be working extremely hard.” Simply sweating because of the heat doesn’t qualify, unless the heat is due to a mad scientist’s death ray or something similar.

Most dictionaries, even those devoted to slang, don’t seem to have caught up with “sweating bullets” yet, which is odd because it’s difficult to read a newspaper or magazine today without running into somebody “sweating bullets” (“The camera zooms in on a dimly lit room in the center of which sits a bespectacled banker sweating bullets, his body limp in a ratty chair…,” Barron’s, 4/30/09). Fortunately, there was an extended conversation about the phrase on the mailing list of the American Dialect Society (ADS-L) back in 2006, with a number of members uncovering pieces of the “bullets” puzzle. The phrase dates back to at least 1929, and several posters suggested that it might be related to the older phrase “to sweat blood,” with much the same meaning but apparently rooted in the King James Bible’s description of Christ’s torment in Gethsemane: “And being in an agony he prayed more earnestly: and his sweat was as it were great drops of blood falling down to the ground.”

Such Biblical roots are certainly possible, but it’s also possible, and perhaps more likely, that the “bullets” in question are simply very large drops of sweat, their size and shape exaggerated and likened to that of bullets, thus emphasizing the distress of the person under pressure.

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