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I read "slap bang in the middle of the debate".

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  • Hello, sivacva. Have you done any research yourself? Commented Dec 1, 2019 at 11:57
  • etymology is the wrong word for your question. You mean origin.
    – Lambie
    Commented Dec 1, 2019 at 15:43

2 Answers 2

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It is probably a variant of the apparently older and similar expression smack bang:

The OED points out that the verb "smack" can be used as an adverb to mean "With, or as with, a smack; suddenly and violently; slap. Also with down, through, etc.

The quotations given to illustrate this sense are:

1782 COWPER Smack went the whip, round went the wheels. 1799 GEO. [IV] in Paget Papers He..tumbled..smack on his face. 1806 H. SIDDONS Smack comes a ball from the enemy and carries away his head. 1836 T. HOOK So away I went smack bang into a quaker's shop to buy myself a pair of gloves.

As you can see, by 1836 "smack-bang" already existed, doubling the effect of "smack" on its own. (VSD)

The OED shows also a further development of the adverbial sense, to mean "completely, entirely; directly," and this is the way I usually hear it used - for instance, to be "smack in the middle of something," or in the quotations cited:

1828 WHEWELL We have got a decision which is smack against us. 1857 A. MATHEWS The wind being smack in their teeth the greater part of the voyage. 1864 TYTLER [Cardan] made the bishop smack whole in twenty-four hours. And these too can be doubled for emphasis, "smack-bang." - Baceseras.

(Phrase Finder)

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Lexicallab.com in its 'Phrase of the day' – 'slap bang in the middle', says in a rather defeatist way '[The origins are] anybody's guess'.

But there is quite a lot of evidence available.

Grose's Classical Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue: Revised and Corrected – 1823 gives a reasonably early usage, as onomatopoeic noun and attributive:

Slap-bang Shop. A petty cook's shop, where there is no credit given, but what is had must be paid for down with the ready slap-bang, i. e. immediately. This is a common appellation for a night-cellar frequented by thieves, and sometimes for a stage-coach or caravan.

Slang: A Dictionary of the Turf, the Ring, the Pit, Or Bon-ton ... by John Bee – 1823 (the whole title [slightly modified here] is worth reading!) contains the more obvious literal sense:

Slap-bang: a blow from each hand. See one-two.

'The old one-two' is still a well known phrase, and there is the more modern 'double whammy'. The modern emphasiser / interjection 'bom-bom' is similar in most respects, but hasn't the same distribution (*'bom-bom in the middle').

The Comic Almanack: An Ephemeris in Jest and Earnest – C Tilt, 1840 (though it seems to be quoting Thackeray in his 'History of the next French Revolution') shows an earlyish usage that is (probably!) adverbial. This may show a transition to what I'm labelling the prepositional-phrase-modifier usage we know today.

[... helter skelter], skurry hurry, slap bang, whooping, screeching, and hurraing, blue coats and red coats, bays and greys, horses, dogs, donkeys, butchers, baroknights, dustmen, and blackguard boys, go tearing, all together, over the common after two or three of the pack that yowl loudest. Why all this is, I can't say ....

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    I have heard 'smack dab', although I think it is a little old-fashioned, and possibly mainly British. Commented Dec 1, 2019 at 14:06
  • @Edwin Ashworth Good stuff. By the way, Grose's example seems to contain a misprint: "a petty crook's shop" seems more likely than "petty cook's", don't you think? (Oh - and the link to John Bee goes to Grose again.) Commented Dec 1, 2019 at 14:20
  • @MichaelHarvey Yes 'smack dab' sounds like what I would use, more so than 'slap bang'. But coincidentally I just heard someone on TV with a Caribbean accent use 'slap bang' Death in Paradise E8S8
    – Mitch
    Commented Dec 1, 2019 at 20:00

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