Reporter's query on "give the shirt off one's back"

Cohen, Gerald Leonard gcohen at MST.EDU
Fri Jul 24 16:53:46 UTC 2009

I've just been contacted by a reporter (Brendan O'Connor) requesting information/insight/etc. on the expression "give the shirt off one's back." I believe the expression is very straightforward and am not sure there's any special insight to be gleaned here. Still, I've been mistaken on such things before, so maybe an ads-l member will see something here that I'm missing.
   Mr. O'Connor also asked me by phone for the earliest attestations, and in this regard I see that OED3 has the following examples:
 (To give away) the shirt off one's back: all one's possessions.
1771 SMOLLETT <>  Humph. Cl., To Mrs. Gwyllim 28 Apr. (1815) 51 He would give away the shirt off his back.
1925 W. N. BURNS Saga Billy the Kid 67 He was a free-hearted, generous boy. He'd give a friend the shirt off his back. 1980 Times 7 Oct. 10/5 One day this industry will have the shirt off my back.

If anyone has anything to add, Mr. O'Connor would be grateful to hear of it.  Please write to him directly
(Brendan.OConnor at with a cc. to ads-l. His deadline, btw, is this evening.

Gerald Cohen


From: OConnor, Brendan [mailto:Brendan.OConnor at]
Sent: Fri 7/24/2009 10:42 AM
To: Cohen, Gerald Leonard
Subject: Shirt off back

Hello Professor Cohen,

We spoke a few months back about the origins of the expression "hop skip and jump" for an article I was working on in ESPN Magazine.  I have a similar query about the expression "to give the shirt off one's back,"  for an item about the custom among soccer players to exchange jerseys after a match.  Any insights most appreciated.

Best Regards,

The American Dialect Society -

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