24

In the second act of Bernard Shaw’s 1905 play Major Barbara, two unemployed proletarians meet and converse at a Salvation Army mission, friendly enough, and one says to the other (with stage direction “cheerfully”),

You’re ony a jumped-up, jerked-off, orspittle-turned-out incurable of an ole workin man: who cares about you? Eh?

The speaker is a socialist of some intellectual pretensions, and his point is that the capitalist system all too routinely discards workers like the one he is addressing, who has lost his job for being too old at 46. He should blame the system, that is, and not himself.

But why and in what sense “jerked-off”? The only glosses I can find for the phrasal verb, from OED through Collins even unto Urban Dictionary, interpret it in terms of (especially male) masturbation. (Even the sense of jerk off as idle, procrastinate, or shirk seems to derive from that primary sense.) Yet although Shaw pushed the envelope of propriety in his time, scandalizing many by having his title character quote Christ on the cross in the present play, and using “bloody” in dialogue in Pygmalion, still I find it hard to believe he would have used “jerked-off” in reference (however figurative) to masturbation, or that if he had it would have got past the censorship then still blocking his Mrs Warren’s Profession from public performance.

But what else could “jerked-off” have meant? Could it mean discharged from employment, fired? That would make the most sense in context, but I have hitherto been able to find no confirmation that such a sense was ever current.

Period (1860–1933) entries for the phrase in Ngrams seem all to refer to sudden bodily removal from a moving train.

  • I have occasionally read/heard "jerk off" used in a sense that I interpreted as "goof off". And calling someone a "jerk-off" simply meant he was a shirker or dead-beat. No clue as to the origin, though. – Hot Licks May 27 '18 at 14:46
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    @HotLicks The OED suggests a derivation via its sense as 'yokel' or 'rustic boob' from jerkwater, a 19th c. slang term for the trains used on branch (hence backwater) railways. – lly May 27 '18 at 16:57
33

The term "jerked-off", meaning masturbation would have been unheard-of in Ireland (and probably Britain) in GBS's time. It seems to mean "thrown out, or discarded", so you're not far off when you say "fired":

“Jumped-up, jerked-off, orspittle-turnedout”

Jumped-up : arrogant or selfimportant.

Jerked-off : thrown out or discarded.

Orspittle-turned-out : turned away from hospitals.

https://www.pcs.org/blog/the-world-of-the-play

  • Regarding the Ireland/England point, incidentally: the play is set in London (where Shaw had been living for 30 years when he wrote it), but the character who speaks these lines, Bonterre O’Brien Price, is most likely Irish, judging by his name (though I don’t remember if that’s ever explicitly stated in the play). – PLL May 27 '18 at 17:24
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    I'm also wondering if hospital (orspittle) might here signify rather a homeless shelter than a medical center. – Brian Donovan May 27 '18 at 19:30
  • @PLL, no, it is not explicitly stated, but I made the same inference. – Brian Donovan May 27 '18 at 19:31
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    @PLL, the character does say "I'm too uppish, owing to my intelligence, my father being a Chartist and a reading, thinking man: a stationer, too." (I quote the sentence entire because its grammar too smacks of Erin.) He is introduced in stage direction as "young," in some contrast with person he's addressing, who is 46. Though James Bronterre O'Brien was indeed a Chartist and in some sense a "stationer," still there's no way he could have had a son under 40 in January 1906, when the play's action is dated--and where would the surname Price come in? Clearly named after, though. – Brian Donovan May 27 '18 at 20:05
3

But what else could “jerked-off” have meant? Could it mean discharged from employment, fired? That would make the most sense in context, but I have hitherto been able to find no confirmation that such a sense was ever current.

sudden bodily removal from a moving train.

There you have it. Unceremoniously dismissed from employment. Worker's rights were scarce at the time.

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    Excellent! For wit, though; helpfulness, not quite so much. – Brian Donovan May 27 '18 at 20:54
  • Not quite sure what you mean. Should I have unpacked 'jerked off', especially since the OP had clearly caught on the the sudden ejection implication? – Michael Harvey May 27 '18 at 21:11
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    Your answer is witty in likening getting fired with getting physically jerked off a train. It scores a witty point off me, too, and with admirable economy, in showing that my question as posted answers itself. But in doing so it collapses the distinction between metaphoric and literal. If I had been willing thus to ignore that distinction, I would have seen the self-answering property of my own question and not posted it. Also, in the train example jerk off is not exactly functioning as a phrasal verb: the preposition has a distinct object. – Brian Donovan May 28 '18 at 13:46
  • I apologise for not noticing that you are 'the OP'. You raised the being chucked (or tossed) off a train thing. I cannot help remembering Cosmo Gordon Lang's reply when, as Archbishop of Canterbury during World War 2, he was asked what ought to happen to Hitler if he were captured. "I think he should be eased off", he is supposed to have said. I don't think he meant it in a lubricious way. – Michael Harvey May 28 '18 at 13:57
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    I have to say that any wit in my reply was unintended. I had to be brief because tea was ready. – Michael Harvey May 28 '18 at 14:01
0

In 1905, the meaning would have been very different from today's, perhaps more in line with cast-off.

  • I would have guessed something like outcast. But I am only a happy hobby englishist. – mathreadler May 27 '18 at 20:04

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