Pedal to the metal.
Dear Word Detective: I heard a friend say he’d “come barrelling down the highway” this morning, and somehow the phrase lodged in my linguistic craw. I mean, it’s been forever and a day since the average person even set eyes on a barrel of anything, let alone actively moved one in any way suggestive of great and possibly uncontrolled speed. Yet we persist in using this phrase. Where does it come from? Are we even using it correctly? The only reference I could see was for the process of sealing wine in a barrel, which certainly doesn’t sound all that reckless. — G. Bloom.
Well, I bet it is if you do it in a moving vehicle. In a related, but decidedly down-market, note, news reports out where we live have lately been awash in scare stories about “mobile meth labs,” which apparently boil down to some guy in the back seat of a Pinto beater futzing with highly explosive chemicals. I consider this more evidence for my conviction that going outside at all is a bad idea. I’m not joking about the Pinto, incidentally; somebody on our road drives one.
Onward. Yes, the use of “barrel” as a verb to mean “move rapidly, especially in a vehicle” is widespread, dates back to the 1930s, and is perfectly correct (“He thought nothing of barrelling down to Munich at eighty miles an hour,” New Yorker, 1957). But you’re justified in wondering how the unglamorous and usually downright dumpy barrel, one of the most inanimate objects imaginable, could possibly produce a verb meaning “to zoom along.”
In the beginning (for our purposes, the early 14th century) there was the simple, humble barrel, which was basically just a wooden cask, defined by the Oxford English Dictionary (OED) as “A cylindrical wooden vessel, generally bulging in the middle and of greater length than breadth, formed of curved staves bound together by hoops, and having flat ends or heads.” We formed “barrel” on the Old French “baril,” meaning “cask, barrel or vat,” and the word quickly became standardized not only as a name for the thing itself, but also for the amount of liquid or solids (grain, etc.) a standard “barrel” could hold (“A Barrel of Soap is to contain 256 pound,” 1712).
Almost immediately, “barrel” was pressed into service in the name of any sort of short, cylindrical tube, as the “barrel” of a winch or, more famously, the “barrel” of a gun. The “barrel” being a fixture of everyday life prior to the mid-20th century also gave us a number of barrel-based figures of speech, such as “over a barrel” meaning “helpless; in someone else’s power” (“[A]pparently in allusion to the state of a person placed over a barrel to clear his lungs of water after being rescued from drowning,” says the OED), and “pork barrel,” originally referring to the average family’s food supply (yes, salted pork was kept in a barrel), later used to mean “wealth,” then (often just as “pork”) “political favors or graft.” The “cracker barrel” found in many general stores became a metaphor for “the opinions or politics of simple, small-town people” and “on the barrelhead” came to mean “immediate payment in cash” from the use of a barrel standing on its end as a counter in small shops.
“Barrel” as a verb, which first appeared in the 15th century, did originally mean simply “to put or store in a barrel” (“Caqueurs, sailors appointed to cure and barrel the herring,” 1769). But the use of empty barrels for fun and recreation has a history as old as barrels themselves. As a protective container, barrels have long been the vehicle of choice for daredevils convinced that taking a dangerous plunge over a waterfall is a good idea (it usually isn’t). But even bored farm boys have been known, for several centuries, to liven things up by rolling down hills in a barrel. This foolhardy stunt (rolling barrels are nearly impossible to steer or stop) is almost certainly the source of “barrelling,” meaning “moving very rapidly,” especially since “barrelling” carries overtones of recklessness and “unstoppability.”