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I would like to know the origin of the idiom "let something rip". Does anyone here know where this usage comes from?

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up vote 7 down vote accepted

The OED’s first citation for ‘let her rip’ is dated 1840. In this sense, the dictionary describes it as colloquial and originally of US origin. It is defined as ‘an exhortation not to restrict the speed of something; (hence) an invitation to act without restraint or to pursue a reckless course’.

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I always assumed it came from sailing, where they would leave the sails out even at the risk of them ripping in the wind in order to move at top speed. But I have no basis for that. – Jim Apr 13 '12 at 7:36
@Jim: That sounds plausible, but I’ve just looked at the OED entry again and was struck by the last five words of this 1894 citation for ‘let rip’ from ‘Among Boers and Basutos’ by F. A. Barkly: ‘I galloped round the Kopje with my police and half-a-dozen volunteers‥and we ‘letrip’ to use the Africander expression.’ – Barrie England Apr 13 '12 at 7:42
Interesting. Wonder how we track down the Africander expression. – Jim Apr 13 '12 at 7:55
@Jim: It should be possible for anyone with the time and inclination. – Barrie England Apr 13 '12 at 7:58

Etymonline.com gives a later date for "let her rip". The word "rip" was invented quite early to mean to move with slashing force, but it wasn't put into idiomatic form until the 1850s:

Meaning "to move with slashing force" (1798) is the sense in let her rip, Amer.Eng. colloquial phrase attested from 1853.

It is also interesting to note that someone says "rip" might come from "R.I.P.", but I doubt that very much.

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I must say, I've always associated the turn of phrase with descriptions of farting. Thus, I always imagined it described the ripping of the seat of ones pants from the force. – Lisa Sep 20 '11 at 5:39

Let her rip (English-American, 1840 onwards). Let her go as she wants. This phrase has a very striking history. "When rival river steam-boats were fully established on the Mississippi and other American rivers, the rival captains would put on every ounce of steam in order to keep ahead. Too frequently the boiler would burst, or 'rip', as emphatically it would when bursting. ' Let her rip ' came to be a common expression amongst these captains when more timid passengers or sensible sub-officers urged him to lower the steam pressure.


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In sports this is often used in the form of go or take (more) action. For instance if I wanted my QBs to start throwing the ball around I would say "Let her rip." If I were standing next to one QB and wanted him to throw the ball harder I might also use it - "Come on, let her rip!"

The more I think about it I hear it involving mostly swinging or throwing but I am sure there are other examples. Barrie's definition is right on but thought I would add modern usage in AE.

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The Texas gunfighter and assassin, Killer Jim Miller, was reported by multiple witnesses to have shouted the phrase when he stepped off the box at his 1909 lynching.

After I posted this, somebody asked for references from a reliable source: -- Bill James, Jim Miller, The Untold Story of a Texas Badman, Henington Publishing Company (1989). -- "Four Men Pay Price of Bobbitt's Death Miller, Allen, West and Burrell are Lynched by Mob at Ada this Morning". The Daily Ardmoreite, April 19, 1909 (oklahomahistory.net). -- Metz, Leon Claire. The Shooters, Berkley Trade; Reprint edition (September 1, 1996), p. 159. -- http://thislandpress.com/07/20/2012/four-men-hanging/ -- Bill O'Neal, Encyclopedia of Western Gunfighters, University of Oklahoma Press (1979), pp. 230–233.

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Welcome to EL&U. We prefer answers which include references; can you provide a citation from a reliable source? – choster Mar 5 '14 at 2:04
I've sent five references off to... who? The webmaster? Anyway, hopefully they'll show up. – Tim Mar 5 '14 at 4:48
My comment was only meant to be of historical interest -- certainly there is no suggestion that Killin Jim originated the phrase in 1909. But interesting, to me at least, how he used it! – Tim Mar 5 '14 at 4:57
Thanks for the edit. You seem to be unfamiliar with our format, which is a Q&A, not a discussion forum. I would suggest taking the site tour and reviewing the help center. – choster Mar 5 '14 at 16:00

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