Idiom "sweat bullets"-----influence of German?

Sally Donlon sod at LOUISIANA.EDU
Sun Sep 3 14:08:11 UTC 2006

I grew up familiar with both meanings, and what struck me as a child
was the physicality of both instantiations.  When you work very hard,
you sweat ("He's out there mowing the lawn and sweating bullets.").
When you're nervous or frightened, you sweat ("I was so nervous, I
was sweating bullets.").

My mental representation of a sweat bullet was a very large drop of
sweat, a sort of exaggerated saline droplet. To my mind -- growing
up, as I did, in a place where high school homecoming must be
scheduled around the opening of deer season -- enlarged drops (of
sweat) mapped neatly onto the physical shape of bullets.

sally o donlon

On Sep 2, 2006, at 8:49 PM, Cohen, Gerald Leonard wrote:

>      English has an interesting idiom: "sweat bullets."  Jonathon
> Green's _Cassell's Dictionary of Slang_ says: "[1950s+] (U.S.) 1.
> to worry excessively, to be terrified. 2. to work very hard."  ----
> I'm familiar only with the first meaning, although I'd prefer to
> substitute "exceedingly" for "excessively," and I'm not sure that
> "to be terrified" is entirely appropriate.  One needs time to start
> sweating bullets (e.g. the perpetrator of a crime waiting to be be
> grilled by very tough detectives.)
>      What particularly interests me here, however, are the
> questions: Why bullets?  How does one even figuratively sweat
> bullets? I believe there *is* no way to figuratively sweat
> bullets.  But note the parallel expression in German,"Blut
> schwitzen"  (= to sweat blood) and its longer variant "Blut und
> Wasser schwitzen" (= to sweat blood and water).
>     Perhaps the German expression was altered by Americans, who
> misinterpreted "Blut" as "bullet" (or perhaps made this alteration
> humorously).  If "sweat bullets" really did arise as late as the
> 1950s in the U.S., perhaps it was U.S. soldiers stationed in
> Germany who heard "Blut (und Wasser) schwitzen" and Americanized
> the idiom to "sweat bullets."  And, of course, as soldiers they'd
> very much have bullets on their mind.
>      Does all this sound plausible?  Or am I overlooking a better
> interpretation?
> Gerald Cohen
> P.S. The German expression "Blut schwitzen" evidently derives from
> the folk belief that the hippopotamus sweats blood.
> ------------------------------------------------------------
> The American Dialect Society -

The American Dialect Society -

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