Take the 2-minute tour ×
English Language & Usage Stack Exchange is a question and answer site for linguists, etymologists, and serious English language enthusiasts. It's 100% free, no registration required.

ODO's definition for bottle includes the following:

2 [mass noun] British informal the courage or confidence needed to do something difficult or dangerous:
I lost my bottle completely and ran

bottle out
British informal lose one’s nerve and decide not to do something:
the Minister has bottled out of real reforms

Where does this use of the word bottle come from? Both the examples in the ODO definition are negative in connotation; are there positive ones too? Can someone have the bottle to do something?

share|improve this question

5 Answers 5

OED has an example of a negative use:

bottle, n.2

1.g. (d) Courage, spirit, ‘guts’; esp. in phr. to lose one's bottle, to lose one's nerve.

It has a note that "this use probably derives from the phrase no bottle ‘no good, useless’. It is however often popularly associated with the rhyming slang term bottle and glass = ‘arse’ and other similar expressions."

It definitely has positive uses, and there is a citation:

1969 It 4 July 11/2 You've gotta have a helluva lot of bottle to do something like that, and I believe that Morrison did it out of sheer contempt.

You might also remember the Milk Marketing Board's slogan "Milk's gotta lotta bottle".

I have always thought that it was related to courage via Dutch courage where one needs to be bolstered by the bravado which alcohol can bring; alcoholic drinks come in bottles.

share|improve this answer
    
Thank you. I guess the obvious question is where does no bottle come from? –  coleopterist Mar 4 '13 at 14:08
1  
@coleopterist Well, yes, that's the $64,000 question which OED doesn't answer. Perhaps if a young lady has a nice bottle then that's good, and there's been a slight transfer of meaning. –  Andrew Leach Mar 4 '13 at 14:11
1  
@coleopterist: As Andrew says, bottle = courage derives from alcohol-enhanced confidence. Related usages include hit the bottle for drink alcohol steadily and in excess, particularly in response to a setback. I don't see why OED needs to explain the trivial extension of the metaphoric usage to lose one's bottle = lose one's nerve = become less brave. –  FumbleFingers Mar 4 '13 at 15:17
    
@FumbleFingers If it was so trivial, then Leach wouldn't be offering $64000 for it :) How does no bottle tie in with your conjecture? –  coleopterist Mar 4 '13 at 15:21
1  
@coleopterist Erk! Hang on a minute! I simply said it was worth $64,000. I'm not offering that much of a bounty on it. –  Andrew Leach Mar 4 '13 at 15:23

According to this site (linked to by FF in a comment to Andrew's answer), the following are all possible origins for the term:

  1. Cockney rhyming slang: bottle = bottle and glass = arse. To lose one's bottle = lose one's arse, i.e. bowel movement = show extreme fear = lose courage. Therefore, to have bottle is to have courage; to bottle out is to show cowardice.
  2. bottle = bottle and glass = class = merit or distinction which, in Cockney terms, would include an ability to stand up for oneself.
  3. Those who find these explanations over-elaborate prefer to locate the origin in the bottle-holder who acted as a second for a prize-fighter, using both the contents of the bottle and other skills to keep up his man's fighting spirit during a bout.
  4. The simplest and probably the best explanation is that bottle originally stood for the courage that comes out of a bottle and has gradually come to mean genuine courage.
share|improve this answer
1  
One of the most deeply nested Cockney etymologies I know is Aris = Aristotle = Bottle = Bottle and Glass = Arse –  FumbleFingers Mar 5 '13 at 3:52
1  
...since no-one seems to have explicitly addressed the actual final question, of course you can praise someone for having the bottle to stand up to oppression, etc. In almost all contexts, "He's got bottle" would be said approvingly. –  FumbleFingers Mar 5 '13 at 3:56

Possibly not rhyming slang or other more complex suggestions, maybe related to early advertising. John Courage, who produced and still produce vast quantities of bottled beers had the slogan/tag line "take Courage" associating their bottled beers with bravery.

share|improve this answer
1  
Interesting theory. It's probably worth a little more research. –  Good A.M. Apr 18 at 23:09

I always understood after living in Hackney in the 1970s that the rhyming slang for bottle and glass was class rather than arse. This provides an explanation for the use of the term losing his bottle or the positive version of having the bottle to do something. So if you have no bottle, you have no class which makes a lot more sense than having no arse. If you have the bottle to stand up for your rights it again makes more sense as class than arse and more than dutch courage.I note that one of the earlier citations refers to "classy".

share|improve this answer

J.S. Farmer & W.E. Henley, Slang and Its Analogues, volume 1 (1890), has an entry for "turn out no bottle," which it says comes from "sporting":

BOTTLE. To TURN OUT NO BOTTLE, phr. (sporting).—Not to turn out well ; to fail.

Given that John C. Hotten, A Dictionary of Modern Slang, Cant, and Vulgar Words, second edition (1860) has an entry for bottle-holder:

BOTTLE-HOLDER, an assistant to a "Second,"—Pugilistic ; an abettor ; also, the bridegroom's man at a wedding.

it is tempting to suppose that the sporting context of the Farmer & Henley term is also pugilism. But the bottle that the "assistant to the Second" holds is presumably an actual bottle, and why it should be associated with the fighter's courage is not obvious—particularly when more-obvious symbolic gestures of defeat occur in the boxing trade—specifically, throwing in the towel, or throwing in the sponge—either of which may actually be done to concede a fight.

Eric Partridge, A Dictionary of Slang and Unconventional English, eighth edition (1984) provides a useful chronology of the different slang senses of bottle. here are the ones old enough to have influenced lost [one's] bottle and bottle out:

  1. turn out no bottle (later C.19 [citation to 1887], but obsolete by 1930)
  2. bottle meaning the monetary take from an entertainment (late C.19 [citation to 1893])
  3. no bottle meaning no good; not 'classy' (ca. 1920)
  4. not much bottle meaning not much good (ca. 1920)
  5. bottle meaning spirits guts, courage (by 1965)

Though this is only speculation on my part, I wonder whether the bottle in "turn out no bottle" might have emerged from bottle in the sense of earnings or profit from an entertainment. It wouldn't be a great stretch to extend the notion of earnings as a share of ticket sales to include earnings from successful bets and (perhaps) prize money for winning a fight. In that case, "turn out no bottle" might originally have meant "turn out no monetary winnings"—the common fate of a losing fighter in those days. If so, that sense of bottle might have given rise to the 1920s notions of "no bottle" and "not much bottle," which in turn might have encouraged an equating of bottle as "success" with bottle as "courage."

Then again, if we think of a "bottle of spirits" as a source of "spirit" rather than of "spirits," the connection of bottle (that is, spirit) to courage is direct and unconditional.

share|improve this answer

Your Answer

 
discard

By posting your answer, you agree to the privacy policy and terms of service.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.