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In researching the recent EL&U question Origins and meaning of "Put your money where your mouth is", I repeatedly came across the seemingly related but older phrase “put up or shut up.” Where and when did this older phrase arise, and what did it originally mean?

I will submit the information that I’ve uncovered so far as an answer below.

2

The phrase comes from boxing, when one fighter would challenge another and require him to put up a stake for a match, or stop his fighting words.

1858

The OED's earliest quotation is:

1858 Marysville (Ohio) Tribune (Electronic text) 21 July, Now, if he means business, let him put up, or shut up, for this is the last communication that will come from me in regard to this fellow.

Here it is printed in another newspaper with more context:

1858 newspaper clipping (see transcript below)

The Brutality of the Nineteenth Century—Somewhat after the manner of duelling correspondence, two pugilists, John Morrissey and John Heenan, the latter known as the "Benicia Hoy," have been negotiating for a fight. — Their letters are published in Porter's Spirit of the Times, where it is openly announced that they are to fight in Canada on the 20th of October, for $2,500 a side, the exact place to be named by the editor of "a city paper." Morrissey, who gave the challenge, closes his letter as follows:

"There has always been some objections, however, to every proposition I have made ; some little quibble that this man Heenan has raised, with how much courage and manliness I leave your readers to judge. The above proposition is certainly a fair one, and no man can object to it.— Now, if he means business, let him put up, or shut up, for this is the last communication that will come from me in regard to this fellow."

And the other ruffian, in his reply, says that he has resigned a place under government in order to accept the challenge, and concludes :

"Mr. Morrissey's slang terms are beneath my notice, as I prefer to conduct the matter in a gentlemanly and straightforward manner."

Cambridge Chronicle, Volume XIII, Number 32, 7 August 1858

1865

The earliest I found in the Chronicling America archive from 1865 makes the meaning clear:

Notice. Having heard that Joe Reilley wants to fight, I thought it my duty as a man, to accept his challenge. Now, if Mr. Reilley wants to fight me, I will fight him for five hundred or a thousand dollars a side, according to the rules of the London Prize Ring. The fight to come off in four or five weeks, in the City of Helena, Montana Territory. If Reilley concluded to accept my proposition, he will find two hundred dollars deposited at the Fountain Restaurant, with John Cornell and Billy Nuttall, California Exchange, to be put up as a forfeit. So put up or shut up. CHARLEY ADAMS. Helena City, July 10, 1865. 47-1t*

If Reilley concluded to accept my proposition, he will find two hundred dollars deposited at the Fountain Restaurant, with John Cornell and Billy Nuttall, California Exchange, to be put up as a forfeit. So put up or shut up.

The Montana Post, July 15, 1865 (Virginia City, Montana Territory [i.e. Mont.])

1867

The next I found is also a boxing challenge in The Montana Post, November 09, 1867. After that, it's used referring to a bet: put up your money to take on the bet or shut up.

  • Thank you for the newspaper database link (in your comment to WS2's answer), Hugo. The meaning of "put up or shut up" in your 1865 and 1867 examples from Montana seems to match the one from the 1868 actress's biography that I found. But I am disappointed that a fuller version of the 1858 Ohio example (to help convey the context more fully) is unavailable. I don't suppose that Oxford keeps longer versions of its cited examples in a publicly accessible database somewhere... – Sven Yargs Sep 30 '14 at 16:40
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    Outstanding! This is the definitive answer, I believe. Thank you for sleuthing it out. – Sven Yargs Oct 1 '14 at 7:32
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    And they carry on the whole dispute through the newspapers. It's like a publicity-hungry, farcical echo of the previous century's private, gentlemanly style of challenging someone to a duel over an affair of honor—through an intermediary and in accordance with a strictly prescribed form. The very notion that gambling on the outcome should be an approved part of both the challenge and the acceptance, notwithstanding the decrying of "slang terms," is astonishingly vulgar. I'm delighted with your discovery of the Montana instances and your uncovering of the larger context of the 1858 episode. – Sven Yargs Oct 1 '14 at 16:45
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    I suppose, really, that it has more in common with modern-day boxing matches, where the participants (and their promoters) try to drum up interest in an impending bout by staging prefight "incidents" at press conferences and the like. – Sven Yargs Oct 1 '14 at 16:48
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    @SvenYargs: Yes, the similarity with modern prefight boxing promotion struck me too. Best of all, googling shows "put up or shut up" is still used in boxing, for example: Let me be the first to say you have a long way to go before you can even step into the ring with a Floyd Mayweather past his prime (I could imagine how bad a prime Floyd would destroy you) or even Manny Pacquiao just past his prime. There are fights to be made Danny Garcia, have your team make it happen, its time for you to put up, or shut up. – Hugo Oct 2 '14 at 8:02
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Nigel Rees, A Word in Your Shell-like (2004) suggests that the phrase “put up or shut up” may mean different things in the United States and in the UK:

put up or shut up! 'Either make good your argument or stop talking about it'. In America, this translates as 'put up your money (as though for a bet)' but in Britain, 'put up your fists (as though for a fight)'. Both uses probably dating from the 19th century.

The entry for "put up or shut up" in Harold Wentworth & Stuart Flexner, Dictionary of American Slang (1960) identifies a specific instance of the phrase from 1894:

put up or shut up 1 Lit., back up your opinion with a money wager or be silent about it. 2 Fig., prove your assertion by some definite action or stop making the assertion. 1894: Thornton. Colloq. Used orig. as an invitation to wager, but now more in anger as a command to shut up.

But the phrase appears earlier still in Mark Twain, A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court (1889):

I was not bluffing this time. I meant what I said ; I could do what I promised. There wasn't any way to misunderstand the language of that challenge. Even the dullest of the chivalry perceived that this was a plain case of "put up, or shut up." They were wise and did the latter.

An even earlier occurrence is in an 1877 translation of Meilhac & Halevy, The Widow: A Comedy in Three Acts (1877):

GAETAN. Oh, you wouldn't rob a friend out of his hard earnings, would you?

GEORGES. Wouldn't I? Show your hand, or forfeit your money. In coarse parlance, "put up or shut up."

And earlier still, from George Barclay, The Life and Remarkable Career of Adah Isaacs Menken, the Celebrated Actress (1868), we have this:

As one of the parties of this "ill assorted union" still survives, it would, perhaps, be wise for me to refrain from any remarks to the why, and wherefore, and furthermore, said surviving party being "on the muscle," and much " bigger than I," he might challenge me to "put up or shut up." Now at the present time I can neither put up my mauleys" in a "twenty-four foot ring" with the requisite amount of money, nor can I find any persons to back me, as regards the "filthy lucre." There is one thing I can do—shut up. "Mum's the word."

This last instance suggests that the phrase may have arisen in the demimonde of pugilism, and that it may have meant both accepting a challenge to fight and betting money on the outcome of that fight.

Oddly, J. S. Farmer & W. E. Henley, Slang and Its Analogues (1902), which doesn't have an entry for "put up or shut up," states that the imperative "put up!" means, essentially, "shut up!":

PUT UP! = Shut your mouth! (American)

—which, if substituted into the phrase "Put up or shut up," would make its meaning "shut your mouth or shut up." It seems highly likely, though, that "put up!" in the sense of "shut your mouth" and the phrase "put up or shut up" either arose independently of one another or with "put up!" emerging as a truncated form of the longer expression.


UPDATE (December 7, 2016): Instances of 'put up or shut up', 1863–1865

Between the July 21, 1858, item cited in Hugo's answer and the July 10, 1865, item cited there, Elephind reports five additional independent instances of the expression—four from the New York Clipper (which also published an item on the original 1858 challenge by John Morrissey ten months later, on April 16, 1859), and one from the Montana Post. Here is a quick look at those instances.

From "The Wrestling Championship: Harry Hill to Mr. Ainesworth" in the New York Clipper (March 28, 1863):

We have received the following card from Mr. Hill, in reference to a match talked about between himself and Ainesworth. Some few days since, a bet of $20 was made that these men wouldn't make a match for $1,000 a side within thirty days, and this is what Harry Hill has to say about it:

EDITOR CLIPPER—The friends of Mr. Ainesworth, having literally defied me to a wrestling encounter with the American Champion, I hereby publicly notify them that I accept the challenge, and will wrestle the collar and elbow hold, first fall, for the sum of $500. I would designate four weeks hence as the time, and New York as the locality, and, if demurred to, will toss for the settlement. It was never my purpose to enter as a professional, but, being bade "to put up or shut up," I have felt disposed to evade the public requirement. HARRY HILL

From "Wrestling Match: For the Championship and One Thousand Dollars, Harry Hill the Victor" in the New York Clipper (April 25, 1863):

We have had many enquiries addressed us, desiring our opinion whether this match was really "on the square" or not, and if the men actually wrestled for the amount staked, viz.: $1,000. In reply, we do not feel justified in expressing any opinion whatever on either point, but merely append the following card from Ainsworth, leaving our readers to draw their own conclusions. Hill declines wrestling any more:—

NEW YORK, April 15, 1863. I will wrestle any man in the world, not exceeding my weight (145 pounds) more than thirty pounds, for any sum of money intervening between one and ten thousand dollars, collar and elbow hold, best two in three, anywhere and at any time; money now ready to be deposited. The forfeiture to be made to be sufficiently large to insure business. If this challenge is accepted abroad, my travelling expenses to be paid to the particular locality designated, unless the applicant prefers the United States, in which event I will pay his traveling expenses. Now to all the world I say either "put up or shut up." L. AINSWORTH

From "The Ring" in the New York Clipper (August 22, 1863):

ED. CLIPPER.—Sir:—I perceive there's another challenge from Farley in your lost week's journal, making the third time he has thus brought his name before the public for notoriety's sake. A year ago I offered to give him five pounds in weight to fight me and he declined. In about five months he had only four challenges in the CLIPPER for me, and I gave him his choice, resulting in a match to fight on the fifth of July for $250 a side. For this I threw up my business, and after training three weeks Farley forfeited $75. In that three weeks my expenses were $200, besides neglecting my saloon and pupils, equal to $150 each. When I went for the forfeit, this man Farley and some of his crowd threatened to mob me for taking the money. I asked him if I hadn't used him like a gentleman , and his answer was that "he had never asked me to;" this from an individual who wants to be considered a sporting man. Here's what I will do, and nothing else: I will fight Farley for $500 a side , or as much more as he likes, at 125lbs. It won't pay me to fight for less. If that suits Mr. F., let him put up or shut up. Any other satisfaction he wants can be had without newspaper talk, as I am always to be found at 79 Front street, and he knows it. JOHNNY HEALEY, alias "Bob."

From "A Challenge," in the [Virginia City] Montana Post (November 5, 1864):

Having heard that Tom. Foster is dissatisfied with the reslt of his fight with me, and thinks he would have a better show in Bannack, I do hereby challenge him to fight me a fair stand up fight, anywhere within one hundred miles of this city, for any amount he may see fit, but not less than one thousand dollars, in any reasonable length of time. A deposie sent to this office will be covered at once, without further parley. Put up or shut up. JOSEPH RILEY.

From "The Ring" in the New York Clipper (May 27, 1865):

JOHNNY HICKEY'S RESPONSE TO GRIFFIN, OF ALBANY.—In response to Griffin, of Albany, Johnny Hickey says that he will meet Griffin in the fistic arena for $l,000 or more a side, at 115 lbs., give or take a pound, in three months after signing articles. Hickey has left $50 with us as an earnest of his intentions, so that he has put Griffin in position to "put up or shut up," as the above is substantially according to his (Griffin's) own proposition. Conclusive arrangements can be made at Mike Trainor's Hotel, in Chatham steeet, New York, or by sending signed articles to the CLIPPER office, accompanied by the necessary $50 or more as forfeit If Griffin fails to respond in the affirmative, Hickey win fight any other man in Uncle Sam's dominions on the same terms. Thus sayeth Johnny.

All of these instances corroborate the conclusion that Hugo's answer reached: "put up or shut up" probably arose in the context of prize fights as a succinct (and soon formulaic) way of saying "I'm willing to bet X amount of money that I will win a fight between us. Match that amount with an equal sum of your own and meet me in the ring, or stop talking about how much you want to fight me."

  • See also this related question about "Put your money where your mouth is." – Drew Sep 28 '14 at 4:21
  • Wasn't there an early one with "put up, shut up, or get (git)" (place your bet, shut up, or get out)? I had never heard that one. – anongoodnurse Sep 28 '14 at 5:14
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Sven Yargs introduces some interesting possible ideas, but the OED is far more concise in its examples and does not go into any speculation as to an origin which might involve 'putting up money' or 'fists'. Though it refers to 'putting one's money where one's mouth is'.

b. intr. in same sense. to put up or shut up (colloq.): to take action, ‘come up with the goods’, or to stop talking about something; ‘to put one's money where one's mouth is’ (usu. in imper.).

1858 Marysville (Ohio) Tribune (Electronic text) 21 July, Now, if he means business, let him put up, or shut up, for this is the last communication that will come from me in regard to this fellow.

1889 ‘M. Twain’ Connecticut Yankee xl. 512 This was a plain case of ‘put up, or shut up’.

1899 ‘R. Connor’ Sky Pilot xv. 202 The boys ginerally put up for what they wanted without no fuss.

1911 J. C. Lincoln Cap'n Warren's Wards 237 You're putting up for it, and I ought to be much obliged.

1943 Z. N. Hurston Let. 25 July in Life in Lett. (2002) 493, I am one of those people who put up or shut up.

1952 Manch. Guardian Weekly 1 May 3/4 The old alternatives will be revived: put up or shut up—get out or get on to the Yalu and beyond.

1996 T. Clancy Executive Orders liv. 738 You blue-suits been telling us for years how ballsy those Aegis cruisers are. Put up or shut up, okay?

  • The 1858 citation is outstanding, WS2—and it's 11 years older than the oldest one I could find. Do you have access to more of the article where it appears? Neither Google Books nor the Library of Congress newspaper archive finds a match for the phrase "business, let him put up, or shut up," and I would love to have a bit more context for the challenge that the quoted speaker makes. – Sven Yargs Sep 28 '14 at 16:29
  • @SvenYargs I'm afraid not. This is simply a straight quotation from the OED. I see that the 'Marysville Journal-Tribune'is still in existence today. You could try contacting them to see if they know where you might access an 1858 edition. Have you tried the British Library catalogue? It is often surprising what they have. The only other place in the UK I could recommend would be the Bodleian Library, Oxford. I am not too familiar with US library sources. marysvillejt.com/web/index.php – WS2 Sep 28 '14 at 18:28
  • @SvenYargs Marysville Journal Tribune appear to have an on-line access to editions, but only from 1890. But I would definitely contact them if I were you. – WS2 Sep 28 '14 at 18:30
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Possibly - put up with - could also refer to this : two people . married . put their resources together as they make a go of life together . in the mountains or on the prairie . which, before refrigeration and other modern storing and preserving options, often meant - simply quite literally putting items up on shelves as high as possible to keep food and clothes and supplies as high and dry as possible . away from dust and critters and such...??? smiles ...

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