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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?

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2 Answers 2

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.

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Thank you. I guess the obvious question is where does no bottle come from? –  coleopterist Mar 4 '13 at 14:08
@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
@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
@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.
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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
...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

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