In Chapter 18, Mr Wopsle is at the Three Jolly Bargemen, giving his audience a theatrical rendition of a murder case as reported in the newspaper:

The victim faintly moaned, "I'm done for," and the murderer barbarously bellowed, "I'll serve you out."

Is the usage of the phrasal verb "serve out" possibly a reference to the killing of an animal in order to serve it up as a dish in a meal?

  • From lexico.com, (archaic) - serve someone out = give someone a Roland for an Oliver. Which last expression wasn't known to me, but apparently it's “to give as good as one gets” (tit for tat). But I'm more familiar with I'll see you out = I'll outlive you, which makes ,more sense in the given context. Feb 7, 2020 at 17:08

1 Answer 1


The Oxford English Dictionary has this definition under "serve, v.1.," along with the earliest cited usage and a directly comparable usage:

  1. to serve out: to punish, take revenge on; to retaliate on (one) for something objectionable. colloq. (orig. Boxing slang). Also (Hunting slang), to ‘punish’ or smash (a fence).

1817 Sporting Mag. 50 18 The butcher was so completely served out, that he resigned all pretensions to victory.

1863 C. Kingsley Water-babies v. 183 I will serve you out for telling the salmon where I was!

I see no evidence that it refers to killing an animal. The same phrasal verb is used to refer to giving food or drink, with an earlier first cited usage:

  1. c. to serve out, to distribute or deal out (food, ammunition, etc.) in portions. [...]

1793 J. MacDonell Diary 15 Aug. in C. M. Gates Five Fur Traders (1933) 101 Our Bourgeois came up with us and ordered each man a dram, which I served out to them.

It may be that this form of service was then generalized to other subjects or objects. In the 1824 collection of anecdotes Boxiana, these uses appear that emphasize what is being served out or dealt:

In closing, the punishment which Carter served out to his opponent was tremendous in the extreme [...] (p. 316)

Much punishment was served out on both sides [...] (p. 349)

Even without punishment being specified, then, the boxing context would convey what is meant in the following metaphor of boxer as a customer of blows:

However, at all events, Ned (the boxer) is a customer not easily to be served out (p. 108)

  • 1
    'Pay out' is (or was) common as well as 'serve out', to mean 'retaliate'. Feb 7, 2020 at 18:46
  • "Dole out" too. "Payback," even. "Mete out." The connection between capital exchanges and violence is interesting. Feb 7, 2020 at 19:17
  • To pay out literally means to pay what is owing (in money), so to 'pay someone out' means to exact a calibrated revenge proportional to the original offence. Feb 7, 2020 at 19:40
  • Thank you! It looks like I may have to shell out and subscribe to the OED online! Again, thanks!
    – JoyRLee
    Feb 7, 2020 at 22:17

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