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I would like to know the origin of the idiom "let something rip".

Does anyone know where this usage came from?

  • @Fattie, the OP had already accepted an answer. – Ahmed Sep 16 '18 at 9:33
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    @Fattie what's "terrific" about the question? I'm curious. The OP didn't explain, didn't show any effort in researching the answer themself (admittedly back in the good old days, the research requisite was never needed), today that question would be closed in less than 48 hours. Why is Barrie England's answer "rubbish", he's quoting the OED. So is the OED rubbish? OK, I see your comment beneath England's answer. You know he is no longer active on the site, don't you? Must be three years now... maybe four. – Mari-Lou A Sep 16 '18 at 9:51
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    hi ML! It''s "terrific" ("why" "quotes"?) in that, any question about idiom origin is a good, solid, and interesting question (as opposed to the 90% rubbish questions on here). Barrie's answer offers a definition. The question is the origin. I'm very sad to hear B.E. is not active, thanks for mentioning it. – Fattie Sep 16 '18 at 12:07
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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
  • Afrikaans expression. – Lambie Sep 17 '18 at 19:47
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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.

Oxford Reference (presumably taken from Green's Dictionary of Slang)

  • Just upvoted this as it sounds really convincing. I'm surprised that it's taken nearly three years to collect two upvotes. – BoldBen Jan 18 '17 at 5:21
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    This answer only replicates verbatim an unproven theory. Please see Sven Yarg's answer for greater detail and more thorough research. -1 to counteract the number of upvotes it has earned since the bounty was announced. – Mari-Lou A Sep 20 '18 at 7:30
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According to Dictionary.com, Urban Dictionary and Online Slang Dictionary, the idiom “let (something) rip” is slang. Here is what UD defines “let rip” as under:

to fart, especially a big loud fart that produces a long ripping sound.

However, the older idiom is informal and denotes making any vehicle move very fast. Additionally, in this sense, "the idiom is particularly used in American English," says Macmillan Dictionary.


Origin:

Focusing our attention on the verb rip in "let (something) rip." is of the first order. Here, rip suggests the verbal (of verb) sense of rip that means to move something with slashing force; the word rip as a verb got this sense circa 1790s (see here).

Conversely, it is worth noting that the origins of the majority of idioms/phrases cannot be said with the certainty, as KnowYourPhrase site (under the entry of let her rip) explains something well about it here. To know something about the origins of such idioms, one can head towards their explanations and usage history through getting into some old newspapers, poetries, books or other similar sources: however, knowing an idiom's history doesn't necessarily mean that it originated in that specific period.

The site KnowYourPhrase also provides the oldest example (sense of moving anything, like vehicle, faster) from a book titled Out West, published in 1910:

"Git up more steam--this ain't a funeral! Let her rip! Don't mind the speed limit! Keep the whistle going!"

In addition, the site also gives another example from the newspaper Farmington Enterprise, but the publishing year (1809) it cites is wrong. In fact, that quote from the newspaper was published on May 12, 1909, denoting the meaning of giving someone permission to tell a story:

"'Say,' said Tommy, 'did I ever tell you about the circus we had at our house the other night?' 'No,' said I, settling back in my chair, 'let her rip.'"

Moreover, as mentioned previously, the idiom is widely used in American English, along with this, The Macmillan Dictionary says that the colloquial phrase "let (something) rip or let her rip" was attested from 1853; so in this regard, The Free Dictionary in its sub-site of idioms mentions mid-1800s:

let it rip Also, let her rip. Go ahead, proceed unchecked. For example, Once you get the tractor started, let it rip. The use of her in the variant comes from a tradition of referring to vehicles as feminine. [Mid-1800s]

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The earliest date I can find for the phrase "Let her rip" is 1837, slightly antedating the widely circulated 1840 date.

The OED includes a 1840 citation for the phrase in brackets.

Quotations placed in brackets in the OED indicate that "a quotation is relevant to the development of a sense but not directly illustrative of it."

The 1840 citation reads:

‘Let her rip,’ as the noisy politician said when he tore his shirt hurrahing for his favorite orator.

  • 1840 New Eng. Weekly Rev. (Hartford, Conn.) 18 July (Electronic text)

Yet the 1837 newspaper clipping from the New Orleans Times-Picayune specifically attributes the phrase to "Yankees."

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  • You'll have to excuse me but I had to check that "Yankees" didn't refer to the eponymous baseball team. The baseball club New York Highlanders changed its name in 1913. The US civil war occurred between 1861-1865, this helps me to contextualise the year 1837. – Mari-Lou A Sep 20 '18 at 7:08
  • Any idea why the slang is attributed to the region of New England? Could it have been imported from the Netherlands or some region of Great Britain? – Mari-Lou A Sep 20 '18 at 7:14
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    @Mari-LouA: In the U.S. South (including New Orleans, Louisiana) the term Yankee referred generally to a person from any Northern state (such as Ohio, Indiana, or Illinois in the western part of the North), not just to a person from New England in the upper Northeast. And "Northern state" at some point became synonymous with "free state" (as opposed to "slave state," which all of the Southern states were). It would be interesting to know when Yankee, which I believe originally applied to all denizens of the British colonies in North America, became a regional term for a U.S. Northerner. – Sven Yargs Sep 20 '18 at 17:16
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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
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Reference-work coverage of 'let it [or her] rip'

Here is the entry for "let her rip" in Christine Ammer, The Facts on File Dictionary of Clichés, second edition (2006):

let her rip Allow an engine to go as fast as possible. An American colloquialism dating from the first half of the nineteenth century, this term presumably was first applied to locomotive or steamship engines. The American journalist Park Benjamin recorded it about 1840: "Another phrase, which often glides in music from the lip, is one of fine significance and beauty, 'Let her rip!'"

Ammer has somewhat different entry for the phrase in Ammer, The American Heritage Dictionary of Idioms, second edition (2013):

let it rip Also, let her rip. Go ahead, proceed unchecked. For example, Once you get the tractor started, let it rip. The use of her in the variant comes from a tradition of referring to vehicles as feminine. {Mid-1800s}

John Bartlett, A Dictionary of Americanisms: A Glossary of Words and Phrases Usually Regarded as Peculiar to the United States, second edition (1859) notes this sense of "rip" and cites Park Benjamin as one of two early sources:

TO RIP. To tear, to drive. A common slang expression is "Let her rip!" i. e. let her drive, let her go.

[First example:] Great Odin, thou storm-god! / Crack on with our ship! / We are off on a batter; / Hurrah, let her rip. — Leland, Knickerbocker Gallery.

[Second example:] Another phrase, which often glides in music from the lip, / Is one of fine significance and beauty, "Let her rip." / In the late panic we have kept this mandate o'er and o'er, / And "let her rip" so frequently, that some can rip no more. [—] Park Benjamin, Poem on Hard Times.

The first edition of Bartlett's Dictionary of Americanisms (1848), however, has no entry for "to rip." I couldn't find the original occurrence of the Park Benjamin poem, which Ammer dates to "about 1840," so I don't know how she arrived at that approximate date. The Charles Leland quotation comes from a poem titled "The Wedding-Trip of Jarl Alvar Rafn," reprinted in The Knickerbocker Gallery (1855).

Maximilian Schere de Vere, Americanisms: The English of the New World (1872) offers this discussion of the origin of "let her rip":

To let her rip, a phrase borrowed from Western steamboats, which, when racing down the river, are very apt to be allowed to rip themselves open ion snags and sawyers rather than to disappoint the ambitious pilot, has entered into common life as an expression of indifference or despair.

Albert Barrere & Charles Leland (the same Charles Leland who was responsible for the 1855 quotation above), A Dictionary of Slang, Jargon & Cant, volume 2 (1890) echoes Schele De Vere's explanation, within its entry for "slide":

Slide (American), "oh let it slide," or "let it rip," never mind. ... To "let her rip" is of Western river origin. Steamboats when racing were liable to come to grief on sunken trees and quays, but in the mad excitement of a race no account was taken of these dangers—it was all happy-go-lucky—"let her rip," if it so chances, so long as we out-run the rival boat.

An alternative explanation of the phrase appears in Sherman Malcolm, The American Slangist (1888):

"LET HER RIP"—Means let the horse or mill run half rigged, if they tear themselves all to pieces ; let the young man or womn run to wild dances, shows or any evil inclined parties. If they get left, mashed, played, skunked, jailed, or hanged, says the slangslinger, let her rip.

A third explanation appears in J. Redding Ware, [Passing English of the Victorian Era: A Dictionary of Heterodox English, Slang and Phrase] (1909):

Let her rip (English-American, 1840 onwards). Let her go as she wants. This phrase has a very striking history. When rival 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.

Another British guide, Everyday Phrases Explained (1913) echoes Ware's theory (using very similar language):

Let her Rip.—Allow her to go as fast as she chooses and chance it; usually applied to fast motoring. Originated on the Mississippi and other American rivers, when rival steamboats first were established. Captains in jealous competition would put on every ounce of steam to keep ahead. Sometimes the boiler would burst, or "rip" apart. Thus "let her rip" came to be an expression of dogged tenacity of purpose when anyone ventured to try and persuade the captain to lower the steam pressure.


Examples of the expression in the wild, from the 1840s

The earliest matches that various Elephind and Chronicling America searches turn up is from 1840. From "Unstolen Wellerisms," in the [Canal Dover] Ohio Democrat and Dover Advertiser (July 17, 1840):

"Let her rip!" as the noisy politician said when he tore his shirt hurraing for [William Henry] Harrison.

This article consists of a series of puns or double entendres expressed in a manner associated with Charles Dickens's character Sam Weller in The Pickwick Papers (1836). It follows that "Let her rip" was already well enough established in Ohio in 1840 that readers of this joke could see the humor in applying it to an incongruous situation.

From an advertisement in the Evansville [Indiana] Journal (February 19, 1846):

"Let her rip--she's all Oak!" New Grocery Store. Water St. Opposite the Steam Boat Landing. Thomas McAlpin. The undersigned is now operating a general assortment of Family Groceries and provisions, in the Building occupied by Charles Harrington.

From "A Bear Story" in the Evansville [Indiana] Weekly Journal (March 23, 1848):

Well, sirs! we [the tall-tale teller, riding in a flat-bottom boat pulled by a bear he had caught] soon cotch up [to the steam boat], and for an hour or two we had it interestingly— the steem-boat was bilin! and the flat! don't mention it! ... She was ridin like a dancin fether and throwing the water from one bank to the other, I begun to get skeered, but knowin I could cut the cable afore she could run to the Gulf of Mexico, I thort I'd let her rip!

From "From Young One, Jr.," in the Sumter [South Carolina] Banner (April 19, 1848), reprinted from the Tennessee Telegraph:

When that was over, somethin else was got up; the galls and boys was all strung round agin, and had therselves numbered. Jerry got a big plate and placin hizself in the middle o' the ring, sez he to the galls, sez he—

"When I turns this round, I'll call out one o' your numbers, and if you ketches it before it falls you won't have to pay no pawns—ef you don't, you will, and—"

"Let 'er rip, Jerry!" said Cousin Jake, "we'll have it now."

And from "From Selkirk's Colony," in the [Madison, Indiana] Daily Courier (August 22, 1849), quoting the "Minesota Chronicle 27th":

By their arrival we have intelligence of a revolt against the Hudson Bay Company's Agent, at the lower settlement on Red River. The populace mobbed (just think of a mob away down towards the Bay--isn't civilization traveling?) and surrounded the court, threatened Mr. Hugh Polesin, a government officer, and gave another officer, Mr. Thorn, notice to quit the country as soon as convenient, if not sooner. The difficulty arose from the arrest of some Half Breeds for violating the law prohibiting trading with the Indians for their furs. The Hudson Bay company claims a monopoly of this business we suppose. The populace, however, seem resolved to "make the fur fly"—if not in one way, at least, in another.--Let her rip—it's all oak.

The repeat occurrences of the larger phrase "let her rip—it's [or she's] all oak" here and in the earlier advertisement from February 1846 lead me to wonder whether this might not have been the original expression involving "let her rip." If so, it would seem to be an expression of confidence in the resilience of the (figurative) vessel: being made of oak, the boat would be less susceptible to breaking open if it happened to strike a snag or other submerged object in the river.

It recurs years later in "Fanny Blair; or, Scudding for Life," in Gleason's Literary Companion (April 30, 1864):

Holding on with unsteady grip to the starboard combing of the cabin gangway, stood captain Nesbitt, in a state of wild and stubborn intoxication. All he did for some moments after Fanny and her companion reached the deck was to say,

She's all oak. Let her rip."

And in a series of jokes related only in supposedly being attempts by disparate characters to recite the Lord's Prayer in unison, in Harper's New Monthly Magazine (November 1864):

and a short-haired Bowery boy was anxious to "Let her rip," because he claimed "She's all oak;"

The earliest Google Books match I could find for "let her rip" is from G.W. Bradbury, "A Down East Duel," in The Literary Museum (November 21, 1846):

"O hang it, Sandy, let's quit this [duel] ; I'll pay for the calf and horse, and give up the bet too."

"No, sir. Don't be a coward : take aim—one, two, THREE, let 'er rip!"

Another early match comes from "Prosperity lets go the Bridle," in The (Old) Farmer's Almanack (1849):

O yes, so it verily does. When one gets up somewhat in the world, handles a little cash, and thinks he can afford to have two coats for Sunday, what strange pranks he will play. "Let her rip!" cried Bill Crackit, when he overturned his father's buggy, going to a cattle show. This young prig was not brought up exactly in the way he should go, which was not found out till too late. His father was prosperous, and became indulgent. He did not keep the reins in his own hands long enough; but, thinking his son was "a sprightly boy," gave him up the bridle.


Conclusions

Although Maximilian Schere de Vere, writing in 1872, expresses serene confidence that "let her rip" originated as a defiant expression of bravado by steamboat captains as they raced recklessly down rivers strewn with dangerous objects, I can easily imagine that this might be a folk etymology explanation. The fuller expression "Let her rip—she's made of oak" likewise may reflect an after-the-fact understanding of the phrase's original meaning.

On the other hand, the main alternative explanation of the phrase's origin——that the ripping alludes to the bursting of a steamship's boiler—appears 37 years after Schele de Vere's and is similarly lacking in supporting documentary evidence. The source of this alternative explanation, J. Redding Ware, argues that "let her rip" was "a common expression amongst these [American steamboat] captains [of the 1840s]" as a riposte to people urging that he protect the boiler by proceeding at a less reckless speed; but Ware cites no account from the 1840s (or later) that corroborates this assertion.

My only definite conclusion is that the expression was in established use in what was then the U.S. West (Ohio) by early 1840 (RaceYouAnytime's answer cites an instance from 1837)—and that readers even then were expected to understand that a turn of phrase linking it to ripping one's shirt open while vigorously cheering was intended jocularly.

  • Sven, there seems to be two competing riverboat related aspects (i) "rip open" the boiler (ii) "rip" the hull on an obstruction. Any thoughts? {BTW it's quite interesting that many, many idioms were generated in the "steamboat/gambling" historical milieu.} – Fattie Sep 19 '18 at 3:49
  • @Fattie: I think both ripping hazards would increase whenever a steamboat raced along at full speed: the speed of travel would greatly increase the danger of the boat's running into something in the river, and maximum stoking of the boiler would substantially increases the pressure and stress on the boat's power-generating system. In short, either factor could lead to a major rupture that would sink the boat. – Sven Yargs Sep 19 '18 at 4:22
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    Yes, but if ( - for example - ) we knew that steam engine operators (well before the existence of riverboats) used the phrase "let it rip" in relation to their boilers, then that would be the origin. It would be quite obvious to someone living in that era ........ (the sadness of etymological searches). – Fattie Sep 19 '18 at 4:58
  • @Fattie: The only instance I found of "let it rip" in close proximity to a discussion of a boiler appears in "Extinguishing Fires by Steam," in The Friend (1853), where a workman intentionally opens a safety valve on a boiler in a factory in order to "let it [the steam] rip" and subdue a fire on the factory's roof. But that's not a tear in the boiler—and it's after the advent of steamboats. – Sven Yargs Sep 19 '18 at 5:42
  • but @svenYargs look at Mike's answer which appear sto be from "oxford reference" ? oxfordreference.com/view/10.1093/acref/9780199829941.001.0001/… – Fattie Sep 19 '18 at 8:45
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+200

The idiomatic phrase 'let [something] rip', in the sense of "[a command or exhortation to] proceed unchecked", more likely derived from gunners' exhortations than the cries of steamboat captains. The earliest uses of the phrase that I could find refer to gunfire, rather than riverboats.

The earliest use that turned up was in the 29 Dec 1837 issue of The Times-Picayune mentioned in RaceYouAnytime's answer. The reference to cannonfire is explicit:

Amos calculates that when the said cannon are fired off, the mails will reach their destination with as great regularity and far greater velocity than by the ordinary conveyance. He may stuff ours into the cannon pointed South and "let her rip," as the Yankees say — we'll run all risks.

The next clear use of the phrase in the sense at hand was in an 1841 article from the 27 Apr Boston Post. Here the use specifically ascribes the phrase to "gunners":

The cover of a salt-box was hung upon a nail in the bake-house door, as the mark, and M'Donald "let her rip,", as gunners say, and sent the charge a little to the right of the mark, and clear through the door....

An earlier, 1840, use of the phrase, marked as peripheral attestation in OED although undoubtedly a pun on the sense at hand, appears to on its face to be literal:

"Let her rip!" as the noisy politician said when he tore his shirt hurraing for Harrison.

Similarly, a slightly later 1841 use than appears in the 27 Apr 1841 Boston Post shown above, is figurative, and so of little help in tracing the origins of the phrase:

If I found a girl fastened to my desires with the adhesive glue of love, and the dictates of prudence demanded a separation, I always laid hold with the firm grasp of resolution and "let her rip," unmindful of the consequences; ....

Wisconsin Express, Madison, Wisconsin, 01 Sep 1841

Effectively contemporaneous with OED's 31 Aug 1846 attestation of the phrase ("Daily Picayune (New Orleans) 31 Aug. 648/2 Why in the name of h-ll's eternal flints don't the engineer pitch in more pine knots and crack on more steam? Let her rip."), which does appear to refer to steamboat boilers, another use in the 12 Nov 1846 issue of The Perry County Democrat (Bloomfield, Pennsylvania) again refers to gunfire:

'No, sir. Don't be a coward: take aim — one, two, THREE, let 'er rip!'

An ad, also found in 1846, appears to allude to a boast, common since the late 1700s in ads for ship sales, that ships made of oak were of superior strength. The reference is a subtext; the ad is for a grocery store opening, and headlines this quote: "Let her rip — she's all oak!"

I found the phrase used figuratively with reference to starting a game of cards in 1848. In 1849, the phrase is again used jocularly in a pun ostensibly refering to clothes ripping (as in the 1840 use).

In 1850, the cries of "jolly tars" in a sailing regatta suggest another possible origin of the phrase:

Up went the gaff topsails, and up the flying jibs. The faint-hearted cried out for the reefing of the mainsails, but the jolly tars shook out the last canvas rag, and cried, "sink or swim, but let 'em rip!"

New Orleans Weekly Delta, 15 Apr 1850.

Despite the appealing possibility of an early origin in sails ripping, the preponderance of early uses of the phrase 'let [something] rip', where the reference is not obscured by humor or figures, refer to gunfire. Such include the earliest, 1837, the next in 1841, and another in 1846. I could not, however, find any uses refering to steamboats earlier than the 1846 attestation of the phrase in OED.

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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.

  • 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
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    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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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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