[Ads-l] pulling your leg (hypothetical legwork)

James Eric Lawson jel at NVENTURE.COM
Sat Feb 6 14:54:04 EST 2021

The following is some inconclusive research from Nov 2020, with
speculative notes to self. Until I looked into it, I had discounted the
possibility of leg-pulling at hangings as an origin; the evidence that
this was at least thought to happen before the appearance in 1852
connects with "getting it on the stretch".

To pull a leg

>From the gruesome to the gleeful in periodical literature, 1803-1852
(see bookmarks in pullaleg, etymwords9).

1852, Arctic Miscellany: getting it on a stretch [that is, a
neck-stretch, a hanging] now called pulling a leg.

1850, Night and Morning: interpretation difficult, meaning unknown.

Honest yeoman, you
will not be refused. He scratches his rough
head, pulls a leg, as he calls it, when the clerk
leans over the counter. and asks to see “ Mus-
ter Mawnering hisself."

col 1, para 3

1849, Punch: interpretation uncertain, meaning unknown.

Should he succeed, we hope he will not forget to invite us, his
dear friend Punch, to the dinner, so that we may congratulate him over
a cup of that Sack which we are positive will be one day the family seat
of the BRIEFLESSEs, upon his extraordinary good luck in having pulled
his leg so skilfully out of the fire.


1848, Brian O'Linn: literal meaning, to get attention, a leg is pulled.

...having laid himself up in the corner of the vehicle, and indulged in
a refreshing slumber until the driver pulled his leg, and informed him
they had reached the Fortune.


1848, Pelham: Same as 1850.

1839, paywalled; contemporaneous 'stretching' = exaggeration


1837, paywalled; strangulation technique: "and the other pulling his
legs"; political thuggery: "To pull the legs of a former friend;"


1835, January, Figaro in London (periodical): adoption of phrase into
refrain of humorous song; transitional use from earlier popular stories
(1824, 1820, 1804, 1803).

And they’ll soon hang themselves—for the good of the Poor /
Chorus.-Sing whack fol de rol, pull their legs, my brave boys,
For Church and for State, and—the good of the Poor


1835, February, paywalled

...they wished the latter of these distinguished personages were hung
upon a gallows, that they might have the opportunity of pulling his legs!


1835, November, paywalled; possible origin in anecdote about literal

While in this situation Hamlet appeared in an attitude with a
countenance full of intense grief; but on the Ghost roaring with pain,
and calling on the carpenters to desist from pulling his legs, as he was
stuck fast, the audience became convulsed with laughter, while poor
Hamlet’s woe having evaporated, he gave way to the prevailing impulse,
and laughed with the audience at the ridiculous situation of his
Ghostship until the curtain dropped...


1825, A glossary of north country words

STRETCHER, an untruth; a softer term for a falsehood.


1824, The European Magazine, and London Review, Oct.: humorous story;
transitional use as for 1835.

Let them hang there for one hundred years, and do you pull their legs
twice a-day.


1820, The Portfolio: serious story about Despard reprinted, from the
gruesome starts toward the gleeful; a quality of mercy in the origin,
pulling done to spare pain and suffering.

The executioner pulled their legs, to put an end to their pain more


1804, The Criminal Recorder: Despard story, printed in multiple

The executioner pulled their legs, to put an end to
their pain more speedily.


1803, The European Magazine and London Review, Mar.: Despard Story.


Earlier influences: noun, a stretcher, in the sense of exaggeration from
the mild to the hyperbolic. Research the phrase as a euphemism for a

1793?, stretching = hanging, telling lie

STRETCHING, hanging; he'll ſtretch for it, he will be
hanged for it; alſo telling a great lye, he ſtretched


Also influence of literal use: legs are pulled to wake people up; this
is said to induce dreams of falling.

On 2/6/21 6:57 AM, Stephen Goranson wrote:
> OED pull, verb P7.a, to pull a person’s leg 1852, the earliest
> example, from Arctic Miscellanies [London, available at hathitrust],
> reprint of an earlier, handwritten weekly “newspaper” written by
> mariners whose ship was stuck in ice. “A chapter [of forthcoming
> publication of “Nuts for the Arctic Public,” with bon mots, puns,
> enigmas, charades,” etc.] will also be given on the most approved
> method of pulling a leg, or what is generally known and called
> getting it on a stretch.” This was written by and for sailors. 
> “getting it on a stretch” is rare generally—a googlewhack—but “get it
> on a stretch” appears in several mariner books, including before
> 1851, concerning rigging of a line, rope or yarn. Might the
> antecedent of “it” here be “pulling” and/or ‘leg? With pull/stretch
> related”? Might “stretch the truth” be a relevant comparandum? Might
> “getting your sea legs be worth mentioning, stretching and folding as
> needed? (News at the Ends of the Earth, Duke UP, commented
> ambiguously “copies [of Nuts…] do not survive or are held privately.”
> Actually or possibly held?) 1859 is OED’s second instance. “I know
> you are pulling my leg….” The book had another case, p.133 “…brothers
> commenced; “pulling his leg,” by criticizing  _his_ rig, asking him
> “who his hatter was?” and politely wishing those present to “twig his
> heels;” finishing their “chaff” by begging him to oblige them with a
> few of his copperplate sayings.” This book, Always Ready, or, To
> Every One his Pride {London and printed Southhampton; available at
> Google Books] was written by a sailor, “a P. and O.” = Peninsular &
> Oriental Steam Navigation Company, Mercantile Marine Transport
> Service person. “Twig his heels,” if meaning to trip (as some take
> pulling a leg to mean), twigs were not at least literally abundant on
> ships. Another. Later (1880s) guess of tricking for money, is
> doubtful or not original. Another unlikely origin; from leg-tugging
> at a séance. 1876 added by me. Two Years Abaft the Mast [Edinburgh,
> London, available at GB, HT in later editions] P. 306 “Suddenly
> becoming conscious that somebody was pulling my leg [….]” Ship in the
> English Merchant Service. May land with additional sightings
> Stephen Goranson http://people.duke.edu/~goranson/
> ------------------------------------------------------------ The
> American Dialect Society - http://www.americandialect.org

James Eric Lawson

The American Dialect Society - http://www.americandialect.org

More information about the Ads-l mailing list