Put a Sock in it: Adjusting Volume & Life in the Trenches

Last week, a friend of mine asked me to do a post letting you all know where “putting your foot in your mouth” comes from. After a lot of looking, the best answer I can come up with is that nobody really knows.

To make up for it, I’m going to do another one this week.

Put a sock in it! It sounds similar to the requested phrase, but the meaning is completely different. For those who don’t know, it’s a way to tell someone to be quiet & it’s usually used impatiently.

The common consensus is that it’s a reference to phonographs, or record players. We all know what a record player looks like today, with the turntable & needle. When you hook it up to speakers, let it play & you have some amazing purely analog sound, the likes of which, you can’t get anywhere else. The phonograph was “invented” in 1877 by Thomas Edison (By invented, I mean had parts stolen from devices which had already been invented, all while killing animals to discredit real inventors) & back then, it looked a little different.

My opinion of Edison aside, phonographs work by putting a needle to thin grooves in either a cylindrical or disk shaped record. The vibration of the needle against tiny ridges in the grooves creates sound. Try playing a record with the volume all the way down. You can hear the music coming from the grooves. It’s very quiet, so these days, a wire attached to the needle converts the vibrations into a signal. It runs from the needle to the receiver, & then on to the speakers. The first phonograph wasn’t powered by electricity. This meant that there was no electrical signal & no speakers. Instead, the amplification came in the form of an amplifying horn. It worked on the same principle as early megaphones.


A phonograph: Based on a painting of the same name, this is the original advertisement & logo for the Victor Talking Machine Company, maker of the famous phonograph brand, Victrola. It would eventually be bought out by RCA & that company would acquire the logo rights. PS the dog’s name is Nipper.
(Image of advertisement is in Public Domain)

Phonographs could only play at one volume level because the only thing that determined the volume level depended on the size of the horn was. In some cases, it was too loud for a room. The only way to turn the volume down was to throw a rag -possibly a sock- in.

The website, World Wide Words claims that this isn’t likely because one of he first written examples shows up in 1929. It shows up in a book by Frederic Manning called The Middle Parts of Fortune. It’s about his experiences in the World War I trenches. The passage is this:

“I’m not miserable, corporal,” said little Martlow. “We’re not dead yet. On’y I’m not fightin’ for any fuckin’ Beljums, see. One o’ them buggers wanted to charge me five frong for a loaf o’ bread.”
“Well, put a sock in it. We’ve ’ad enough bloody talk now.”

Another use shows up in 1919 in a special wartime series of articles & illustrations in an Australian magazine called Western Mail. World Wide Words claims that since 1919 was well after phonographs made their way into people’s homes, it’s most likely that the phrase nothing more than wartime slang that the soldiers brought back.

I tend to like the first explanation a little more because I’m a music freak & it’s a little more romanticized than, “A bunch of soldiers just kind of said it.”

At any rate, it’s certainly an interesting expression & its origins seem just as interesting.

There you have it; you’re welcome.


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