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Today, I found myself discussing what students should have "under their belts" during a lecture, and I wondered to myself if there was some inappropriate undertone here that I might be unaware of.

Question: What is the origin of the phrase "under your belt"?

A google search revealed some webpages (e.g. [1]) that assert its origin is related to consumption of food -- once a meal has been eaten, it's under your belt (which is a relief). However, with such websites, I have no way to determine fact from "random guy on the internet making stuff up".

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You must also consider that trouser waists used to be worn much higher than today. I don't think the expression has any sexual origins, though I have no evidence for that. –  Gorpik May 24 '12 at 10:49
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+1 for including the research you've done so far. (Plus, it's an interesting question) –  J.R. May 24 '12 at 10:49
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Thanks for the great answers!! (I picked one I liked as the "accepted" answer, but there was very little separating them.) –  Douglas S. Stones May 24 '12 at 22:24

4 Answers 4

up vote 4 down vote accepted

The Online Etymological Dictionary says:

To get something under (one's) belt is to get it into one's stomach.

The Oxford English Dictionary says:

Colloq. phr. under one's belt, in one's stomach. Also fig.

Their first three citations are:

  • 1839 The Spirit of the Times: Away we went, each bearing, under his belt, his full share of the antifogmatical?compound.
  • 1938 A Dictionary of American English on historical principles: Belt, v.? To put under one's belt; to swallow.
  • 1954 The Manchester Guardian Weekly: His wife had 135,000 miles driving in the States under her belt?but was still failed.

Here's three earlier literal examples, all about a lot of alcohol under one's belt.

  • 1762's The Young Hypocrite by Samuel Foote:

MAZURE. How can that be .' Can wine, that takes the ' senses away, restore them. again? COUNT. Pshaw ! you talk like a milkfop, Mr. Mayor f Why, I am never fo sensible, as when I am foaking ; with six bottles under my belt I am sit to

  • 1790's The Expedition of Humphry Clinker by Tobias Smollett (first published 1771):

At half an hour past eight in the evening, he was carried home with six good bottles of claret under his belt; and it being then Friday. he gave orders that he should not be disturbed till Sunday at noon.

  • 1817's Ormond, a tale by Maria Edgeworth:

For his own part, it was his established rule never to go to bed without a proper quantity of liquor under his belt ; but he defied the universe to say he was ever known to be drunk.

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The literal meaning of having something under your belt is having it in your stomach, but it’s probably more frequently used figuratively, to mean having acquired something, often intellectual. For example, the OED has these two supporting citations, from the English novelists P G Wodehouse (1954) and John Wain (1962):

Just as you have got Hamlet and Macbeth under your belt

He wanted me to get plenty of Latin and Greek under the belt so that I could be like him.

Below the belt has a quite different meaning. It’s from the language of boxing, where the rules forbid hitting the lower abdomen. It, too, can be used figuratively to describe other kinds of unfair act.

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I'd argue that even the having it in your stomach is figurative as the first literal meaning of the phrase would have been to have something, like a weapon, hanging from one's belt. –  Callithumpian May 24 '12 at 12:10
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@Callithumpian: The earliest "in your stomach" I found is 1762, and "something hanging" from 1596 (and is that the first recorded emoticon in history roflol?! :) –  Hugo May 24 '12 at 12:33

The phrase seems to be of Scottish origin. As Hugo found, most of the earliest uses of the phrase have to do with alcohol consumption. I did find this earlier figurative use of the phrase however from The History Of The Church And State Of Scotland, 1753 (date check):

http://books.google.com/books?id=mQM-AAAAcAAJ&q=mdccliii#v=snippet&q=belt&f=false

It appears the figurative sense of under one's belt to mean owned or "contained by" goes back even further as evidenced by this old Scottish saying from A Complete Collection of Scotish Proverbs, 1721:

enter image description here

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Perhaps related to the 1721 Scottish saying "my tongue is not under your belt" is the Scottish proverb "put thy thumb under my belt", to submit (1848), listed in 1737 as "thy thumb is under my belt". –  Hugo May 24 '12 at 12:58
    
Interesting. All these body parts under belts make me wonder if there's some more tangible origin out there. Then there's under one's thumb, tread under foot, etc. –  Callithumpian May 24 '12 at 14:15
    
A belt can be used for corporal punishment. Your quotes make me wonder if the phrase originally meant under your control (through violent coercion). –  donothingsuccessfully May 24 '12 at 20:28

Under your belt means --

"to have learned or succeeded in something which might be an advantage in the future."

e.g. Basic computer skills are a good thing to have under your belt.

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Can you cite your source? –  simchona May 30 '12 at 20:39
    
ya. i got it from the Cambridge advanced dictionary. –  Krishna Chandra Tiwari May 31 '12 at 16:20

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