LSSU Banished Words list, 2008

Benjamin Zimmer bgzimmer at BABEL.LING.UPENN.EDU
Thu Jan 3 21:59:05 UTC 2008

On Jan 3, 2008 2:08 PM, Mark Mandel <thnidu at> wrote:
> > On Jan 3, 2008 8:22 AM, Dennis Preston <preston at> wrote:
> >
> > "Raked over the coals"? Phrasal etymologists to the rescue? My mind's
> > eye tells me that "racked over..." would be more accurate.
> Yes, "raked over the coals". I've known this idiom as long as I can
> remember, and never with "racked". Here's some history from OED, with
> different verbs:
> as, adv. (conj., and rel. pron.)
> B.VII.28
> 1833 MARRYAT P. Simple xiii. (Hoppe) Seeing as how the captain had been
> hauling him over the coals.
> back-
> A.III.12.c
> 1959 P. MCCUTCHAN Storm South iv. 57, I didn't want to be hauled over the
> coals for back-answering a passenger.
> coal, n.
>    12.... to haul, call ({dag}fetch, {dag}bring) over the coals: to call to
> account and convict, to reprimand, call to task: originally in reference to
> the treatment of heretics.
> 1565 CARD. ALLEN in Fulke Confut. (1577) 372 S. Augustine, that knewe best
> how to fetche an heretike ouer the coles.

A bit further explanation (thanks to Katherine Martin of the OED for
the research)...

The idiom "rake (someone) over the coals" started off as the phrasal
verb "rake over" with "the coals" as its object, roughly meaning 'to
dredge up something unpleasant from the past'. But along the way it
got conflated with transitive verbs that could take the PP complement
"over the coals", as in "haul/call (someone) over the coals". "Rake"
ended up falling into this pattern, even though when you stop to think
about it, the resulting idiom is very strange.

--Ben Zimmer

The American Dialect Society -

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