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View Full Version : Origin of "sacked" or "got the sack"?


Rilchiam
08-24-2016, 11:02 PM
What does this term derive from? I assume there was never a time when people being dismissed from their jobs were literally put in sacks. I hope not, anyway. So what's the origin?

markn+
08-24-2016, 11:18 PM
Etymology Online (http://www.etymonline.com/index.php?term=sack&allowed_in_frame=0) says "to give someone the sack" was the original formula and was "perhaps from the notion of the worker going off with his tools in a bag".

--Mark

UDS
08-24-2016, 11:58 PM
The earliest citations in the OED are from the first half of the nineteenth century, but the phrase (lit. "to give someone his bag") is known in French from the mid-seventeenth century, and in Middle Dutch from before the sixteenth.

It could, as markn+ says, refer to a worker leaving with his toolbag. Or it could refer to, e.g. a domestic servant who lives in, leaving upon dismissal with all their belongings in a bag.

Hail Ants
08-25-2016, 04:42 AM
Also, It's been my experience that using 'sacked' to mean fired from a job is a uniquely British English thing. I've never heard it in America.

samclem
08-25-2016, 06:33 AM
Also, It's been my experience that using 'sacked' to mean fired from a job is a uniquely British English thing. I've never heard it in America.

Absolutely. All OED citations from before 1900 are British.

WOOKINPANUB
08-25-2016, 07:06 AM
Also, It's been my experience that using 'sacked' to mean fired from a job is a uniquely British English thing. I've never heard it in America.

Really? I have, so much so that I didn't realize it was British in origin. Maybe it's a regional thing in the U.S.

markn+
08-25-2016, 08:47 AM
I've also never heard it used by a native US English speaker (lived in Chicago and California). The first time I heard it was in the credits for Monty Python and the Holy Grail, and I didn't understand it. I saw some puzzled looks from other members of the audience too.

The Corpus of Global Web Based English (http://corpus.byu.edu/glowbe/) is a great tool for investigating regional usage questions like this. It has a searchable corpus of 1.9 billion words, and breaks down the results by which country they're from. It shows that the word "sacked" was used 4717 times in Great Britain vs. 852 times in the US. However, scanning the results shows that most of the US uses are in reference to football, while most of the GB references are in the "fired" sense. There are also some instances of the "pillage" sense in both cases. You can do multiword searches with wildcards, but I can't think of a good search that would clearly distinguish the "fired" sense.

--Mark

Leo Bloom
08-25-2016, 09:07 AM
Great cite/site.

OP etymology makes me think of the movie and TV trope of "insta-fired==carrying out desk contents in a cardboard box."

Which I can't believe happens that often.

"He was boxed."

markn+
08-25-2016, 09:26 AM
Which I can't believe happens that often.


Oh yeah, I know several people who worked at companies where that was their standard policy. The same day that someone was fired, they would be required to clean out their desks and leave the building. It happened to my sister once, at the Park Service in Chicago (bizarrely, several days after receiving a very positive review).

--Mark

Leo Bloom
08-25-2016, 09:29 AM
Noted. That's cold--making you clean your ex-desk.

I was thinking most people (like me) had post-firing insta-trash which they could fucking clean out themselves.

TriPolar
08-25-2016, 09:32 AM
I don't hear 'sacked' a lot compared, to 'fired', 'canned', 'got the axe', and other terms, but I think any American would know what it means and many have heard it at least once.

Folacin
08-25-2016, 09:43 AM
Noted. That's cold--making you clean your ex-desk.

I was thinking most people (like me) had post-firing insta-trash which they could fucking clean out themselves.

It's not cleaning trash - it's the pictures of your family and any other personal stuff that are in the box.

markn+
08-25-2016, 09:58 AM
Yeah, it's not the cleaning the desk part that company is interested in, it's getting the person out of the building as quickly as possible. They don't want an angry disgruntled ex-employee wandering around the halls, or worse, making some final "improvements" to the company property, computer system, etc. The "clean your desk out" request is just telling them to take any personal items they don't want to lose forever, since they won't be returning to the building.

--Mark

Telemark
08-25-2016, 10:01 AM
Noted. That's cold--making you clean your ex-desk.

Cleaning out your desk means taking your personal property home, not actually cleaning.

leftfield6
08-25-2016, 10:04 AM
In a sales environment, it's the norm to be asked to pack up your personal belongings after being fired. Usually with a manager there watching you pack up. Don't want you carrying out customer lists or confidential files.

Shakester
08-25-2016, 10:23 AM
Also, It's been my experience that using 'sacked' to mean fired from a job is a uniquely British English thing. I've never heard it in America.

No, it's very commonly used in Australia, too.

TriPolar
08-25-2016, 10:33 AM
In a sales environment, it's the norm to be asked to pack up your personal belongings after being fired. Usually with a manager there watching you pack up. Don't want you carrying out customer lists or confidential files.

It's very common in IT to be escorted out of the building now. They don't want you taking proprietary data or code or to be screwing up anything in the system. Where I work even though we don't have many firings even when people leave amicably they are scrubbed out of the system quickly, all passwords de-activated, even contact information removed immediately. It's all part of the modern paranoia.

NeonMadman
08-25-2016, 12:15 PM
Great cite/site.

OP etymology makes me think of the movie and TV trope of "insta-fired==carrying out desk contents in a cardboard box."

Which I can't believe happens that often.

"He was boxed."

Meaning we put on a boxing glove and punched him in the face on the way out the door? ;)

Seriously, thought, that more or less happened to me when I was let go from an office manager job in the early 90s, though I was allowed to come in after office hours to do it (I was on vacation when my boss called and asked me to "meet him for coffee"). He said I could come back after 5:00 when the office closed to clean out my desk so I wouldn't have to face the office staff who worked for me. But word got around, and they liked me enough that most of them stayed after hours to be able to say goodbye.

NeonMadman
08-25-2016, 12:18 PM
In a sales environment, it's the norm to be asked to pack up your personal belongings after being fired. Usually with a manager there watching you pack up. Don't want you carrying out customer lists or confidential files.

Not a problem. When I was in sales, I had all that on my home computer already. :p

DrCube
08-25-2016, 12:20 PM
How does getting fired "sack" relate to sacking a city in war, or a quarterback sack in football?

markn+
08-25-2016, 12:26 PM
If you click on the Etymology Online link in my first reply to this thread, you can see what they say about both of those senses. The plunder sense comes from the idea of putting booty in a bag, and the football sense comes from the plunder sense.

--Mark

cochrane
08-25-2016, 12:27 PM
I don't hear 'sacked' a lot compared, to 'fired', 'canned', 'got the axe', and other terms, but I think any American would know what it means and many have heard it at least once.

Yup. I'm familiar with the word "sacked" as it relates to getting fired.

NeonMadman
08-25-2016, 01:04 PM
I don't hear 'sacked' a lot compared, to 'fired', 'canned', 'got the axe', and other terms, but I think any American would know what it means and many have heard it at least once.

At least any American who has read the credits in Monty Python and the Holy Grail.

missred
08-25-2016, 01:17 PM
It's very common in IT to be escorted out of the building now. They don't want you taking proprietary data or code or to be screwing up anything in the system. Where I work even though we don't have many firings even when people leave amicably they are scrubbed out of the system quickly, all passwords de-activated, even contact information removed immediately. It's all part of the modern paranoia.

It is in Finance too, as it renders you unable to screw with accounts and inventory.

Atamasama
08-25-2016, 04:16 PM
I've heard the term "sacked" many times in this context. As much or maybe more than "canned".

I grew up (and still live) in the Pacific Northwest. I thought it was a common term in the US.

And collecting your things isn't cold or rare... What else are you going to do with personal items? Whether you're being escorted out by security or leaving on your own terms you need to carry them out somehow. A box is probably the most convenient way.

What would be cold is confiscating an employee's personal effects after they're terminated. Which I've never heard of luckily.

Leo Bloom
08-25-2016, 05:52 PM
In all my years of office employment the only personal article I had on the job was a copy of Annotations to Finnegans Wake, and that was for one truly sucky job.

I'm not sure what that says about me.

cochrane
08-25-2016, 06:18 PM
What would be cold is confiscating an employee's personal effects after they're terminated. Which I've never heard of luckily.

"Take your things if you want to live." :D

TriPolar
08-25-2016, 06:36 PM
At least any American who has read the credits in Monty Python and the Holy Grail.

I can't say where I first heard it. I work with a some Brits now but I'm sure I've known this term for a long time. It's possible I first picked it up watching BBC shows like Monty Python way back when, I just can't say I know of a time when I didn't know what it meant. One problem is that it's meaning is obvious in context.

Rilchiam
08-25-2016, 07:19 PM
The earliest citations in the OED are from the first half of the nineteenth century, but the phrase (lit. "to give someone his bag") is known in French from the mid-seventeenth century, and in Middle Dutch from before the sixteenth.

It could, as markn+ says, refer to a worker leaving with his toolbag. Or it could refer to, e.g. a domestic servant who lives in, leaving upon dismissal with all their belongings in a bag.

I see. Thank you. (Now I'm wondering where "canned" comes from!)

Hail Ants
08-25-2016, 07:39 PM
At least any American who has read the credits in Monty Python and the Holy Grail.Yeah, I was a kid when I saw 'sacked' for the first time in Holy Grail in '76 and I didn't know what it meant (it's actually in the opening credits, the film has no ending credits). Sort of because I didn't know what it actually meant and because I was a kid it still seemed funny (like they were actually put in a sack or something)...

"Those responsible for the previous sackings, have been sacked..."

UDS
08-25-2016, 08:33 PM
I see. Thank you. (Now I'm wondering where "canned" comes from!)
It's a US usage. Probably the original sense was "thrown in the trashcan"; hence, "discarded", hence "dismissed". "Can it!" in the sense of "stop that behaviour" is also a US usage, and probably has a similar derivation. Both turn up the early twentieth century.

"Canned" is one of those words that can have almost diametrically opposed senses - "canned" meaning discarded versus "canned" meaning preserved. The first sense derives from trashcan, of course, and the second from cans or cannisters used to keep things. A sound or film recording which has been "canned" has been completed, not discarded, and of course we have canned laughter. But I think the "discard" sense is gradually eclipsing the "preserve" sense.

In most of the rest of the anglosphere, things are discarded in dustbins, not trashcans, and they are preserved in tins, not cans, so these usages have limited penetration outside US English, and other variants influenced by US English.

upend
08-26-2016, 07:23 AM
I did a lot of work with NCR in the 90's. They would tell you that "you're fired"come from the former head of NCR who when getting rid of a particular employee, dragged his desk out too and set fire to it.

sorry, no cite & not sure whether it's not an urban legend..

Leo Bloom
08-26-2016, 07:29 AM
...
In most of the rest of the anglosphere, things are discarded in dustbins, not trashcans, and they are preserved in tins, not cans, so these usages have limited penetration outside US English, and other variants influenced by US English.
Do the Brits still use the word "tip" for trash? (It's in the Wake often, since I mentioned it.)

markn+
08-26-2016, 08:12 AM
I did a lot of work with NCR in the 90's. They would tell you that "you're fired"come from the former head of NCR who when getting rid of a particular employee, dragged his desk out too and set fire to it.

sorry, no cite & not sure whether it's not an urban legend..

Even ignoring the absurdity of a company destroying valuable property for no reason, the word "fired" in the "dismissed from work" sense dates from 1885 (cite (http://www.etymonline.com/index.php?allowed_in_frame=0&search=fire)). NCR was founded in 1884, but it's highly unlikely that (a) a lot of people were fired within the first year, (b) that the bizarre practice of burning their desk developed in that short time, (c) that the company was successful enough in their first year that they could afford to frivolously destroy desks, and (d) that the idea spread and became a widely known expression among the general population in that short time.

--Mark

samclem
08-26-2016, 09:21 AM
I did a lot of work with NCR in the 90's. They would tell you that "you're fired"come from the former head of NCR who when getting rid of a particular employee, dragged his desk out too and set fire to it.

sorry, no cite & not sure whether it's not an urban legend..

Even ignoring the absurdity of a company destroying valuable property for no reason, the word "fired" in the "dismissed from work" sense dates from 1885 (cite (http://www.etymonline.com/index.php?allowed_in_frame=0&search=fire)). NCR was founded in 1884, but it's highly unlikely that (a) a lot of people were fired within the first year, (b) that the bizarre practice of burning their desk developed in that short time, (c) that the company was successful enough in their first year that they could afford to frivolously destroy desks, and (d) that the idea spread and became a widely known expression among the general population in that short time.

--Mark

To drive a stake through the heart of that canard, the OED now has an 1879 cite--
1879 Cincinnati Enquirer 7 Sept. 10/7 Professional Slang... Fired, Banged, Shot Out—When a performer is discharged he is one of the above.

UncleFred
08-26-2016, 10:10 AM
I'm disappointed. I was hoping it went back to the Roman punishment (for parracide) of literally sewing someone into a sack with several animals and throwing them into the Tiber, there to drown.

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