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

Joel S. Berson Berson at ATT.NET
Fri Jul 24 19:29:28 UTC 2009

Not copied to Brendan O'Connor, since it is presumably meant
literally, with perhaps a tinge of allusion to the figurative.

The earliest instance revealed (to my feeble search terms) by Early
American Newspapers is 1785 Dec 20, Charleston (S.C.) Evening
Gazette, page 2, col. 1.  A horsewoman having fallen into the water
and gotten soaked, and only a married man permitted to approach, "the
highly distinguished gentleman advanced, and in a few minutes
untrussed Madam, supplied her with the very shirt off his back, a
handkerchief by way of night cap, and a pair of stockings that were
luckily turned inside out."


At 7/24/2009 12:53 PM, Cohen, Gerald Leonard wrote:
>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.
>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 -

The American Dialect Society -

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