As you know, there is a phrase “have no shirt on his back,” which means having no money and basic necessities. Would you think I should apply the meaning to the following description?

 "How many times do I have to tell you not to mention that unnaturalness under my roof?" he hissed, his face now a rich plum color. "You stand there, in the clothes Petunia and I have put on your ungrateful back ...."

 "Only after Dudley finished with them," said Harry coldly, ... (p33, Harry Potter 4, US edition)

For your information, Harry has lived at his non-wizard uncle’s house since he lost his parents. Now, his uncle is speaking with an air of condescension. Dudley is his cousin, whose old clothes are always going to Harry.

I consulted some dictionaries, but there seems to be no such idiom as “put the clothes on your ~ back”.

And here are my questions;

  1. Is the speaker, Harry’s uncle, talking only about clothes, or saying “you live in comfort with basic needs for life”?
  2. Is Harry’s answer purely about clothes, or a part of the idiomatic meaning which he took it literally on purpose?

I’d be glad if you could help me!

2 Answers 2


There is a common expression "to give (someone) the clothes off your back", meaning that you would go without basic necessities yourself in order to provide for that person; the Dursleys certainly haven't been doing that for Harry! JK Rowling is playing with our (the readers') presumed understanding of that expression.

His uncle is using "clothes" figuratively, as a stand-in for all the necessities of life; Harry's answer turns this around - his clothes are literally Dudley's hand-me-downs, but presumably the food he eats hasn't gone through Dudley first!

Side note: Clothes have a lot of significance in the Harry Potter books; house elves are automatically freed (and banished) if their owners give them clothes. Coincidence?

  • @MT Head Thanks a million! When it comes to your side note, I was thinking the same thing!
    – user7493
    Jun 4, 2011 at 11:06
  1. No. He's saying Harry is beholden to him for the basic necessities of life.

  2. No. He is merely saying they are hand-me-downs, the cast-off clothes of Dudley.

By the way, the idiom involving clothes and backs is usually given as "nothing but the clothes on one's back" meaning no possessions except what one is wearing.

  • 1
    He might be confusing it with "to give someone the shirt off his back" (to be exceptionally generous).
    – Kit Z. Fox
    Jun 3, 2011 at 2:17
  • +1, but the "No." part of your answers is confusing since the questions are in the is it X or Y? format. Jun 3, 2011 at 2:25

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