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I was just saying this today and I realized I have no idea where it comes from. What is the origin of "throw (someone) for a loop"?

Some Google searches show that I've been using it correctly and that it generally means to astonish or confuse someone. I've heard it used in this context: "Wow I wasn't expecting that, it threw me for a loop!"

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It may come from the earlier "knocked for a loop", in boxing meaning to be hit in the head causing confusion.

(1922) "Kelley, the next time that guy comes back to my desk I am going to knock him for a loop!" exclaimed the Hotel Stenographer. —Logansport Pharos-Tribune (Indiana), 17 March, page 4

Google Ngrams shows "knocked for a loop" appearing around 1918, and "thrown for a loop" around 1945.

The Word Detective also places its origin at about 1920:

To be “thrown for a loop” or “knocked for a loop” refers to being bewildered, dazzled, disoriented and shocked by some event (“AT&T and T-Mobile were thrown for a loop last week when the Department of Justice sued to block AT&T’s planned acquisition of T-Mobile,” CNET, 9/5/11). The phrase first appeared in print in the 1920s, and comes from what the Oxford English Dictionary terms “a centrifugal railway,” but which is, no doubt, better known as a “roller coaster.” The “loop” on roller coaster runs is the point where the coaster arcs upward through a complete circle, leaving passengers upside down at its apex. The term was initially used in the literal roller coaster sense and then to describe aerobatic maneuvers by pilots “looping the loop,” and finally in boxing to mean a powerful punch that downed an opponent, before acquiring its modern “OMG!” usage.

Other sources disagree with the OED theory, preferring to link it to "loopy", which first appeared in the 1820's. The first roller coaster with an inverted loop was built in the 1950s.

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  • Yeah, I've always assumed the expression comes from the "pugilistic arts" and the resulting concussions that made one "loopy". Exactly how/why "loop" or "loopy" got assigned to the condition one experiences following a well-landed "haymaker", however, isn't clear.
    – Hot Licks
    Apr 11, 2016 at 23:49
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"Knocked for a loop" appeared in print as early as 1916. In an article in the Brooklyn Citizen, the heavyweight boxer Fred Fulton wrote that he:

knocked a fellow named Riley for a loop in three rounds in Minneapolis.

  • Fred Fulton, "Fulton Says He Learned Tricks from M'Carty," Brooklyn Citizen, January 22, 1916, p4

"Thrown for a loop" appeared as early as 1928 in an article in the Wisconsin State Journal profiling radio announcer Quin Ryan of WGN in Chicago who was visiting Madison. The article by Ray Matson, which quotes Ryan saying how famous celebrities are often flummoxed when asked to speak in front of the microphone on live radio, starts with these lines:

The worm has turned. The proud have been thrown for a loop, and the mighty have wilted in their wing collars. 'Mike' has done it all

-- Ray Matson, "Quin Says He's 'Worm' That Turned," Wisconsin State Journal, July 9, 1928, p6

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IMHO: We say, "The best laid plans of mice and men so often go astray," and I would read "knocked for a loop" as a metaphor to express the same idea. The key here IMHO is what we think is indicated by the preposition "for." Like most (if not all) prepositions its meaning is flexible and hence dependent upon the context. Here I would read "for" in the sense of "toward the object intended," e.g. as in "now for a nice nap." In "knocked/thrown for a loop" I see an object being struck and careening away, which is the "intended" result of whatever unanticipated circumstance "knocked/threw" it. The plan "loops" (i.e. spins haphazardly) as it careens away.

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    Mentions of humble opinions point to an answer that, while nicely explained, may not be as authoritative as expected on this site. Citations would help. Robert Burns? Dec 16, 2020 at 4:29
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    Nice to see an answer referencing Robert Burns, but being thrown for a loop is different than everyday mishaps. Yours is more like, "When man makes plans, God laughs." Being thrown for a loop is much more... unexpected. Like, totally out of nowhere. Also, the opining on the preposition aspect is so much opinion (however humble) that it needs a reliable source to support it. Dec 17, 2020 at 14:32
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    @YosefBaskin - Yes, Robert Burns. More directly, "The best laid schemes o’ Mice an’ Men/ Gang aft agley,/ An’ lea’e us nought but grief an’ pain,/ For promis’d joy!" To a Mouse..., one of my favorite poems. Dec 17, 2020 at 14:36
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The first form of the saying was likely "knocked me for a loop" and comes from boxing -- blows to the head that leave one spinning in confusion. But "threw me for a loop" first appeared in print & comes from what the Oxford English Dictionary terms a "centrifugal railway" (roller coaster). The loop runs to the point where the coaster arcs upward through a complete circle, leaving passengers upside down.

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  • Hello, and welcome to the EL&U. You answer could be much improved by offering references for the information you are giving.
    – fev
    Jul 30, 2021 at 18:58

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