There's an informal British meaning to the word gag, which is

  1. [to] be very eager to have or do (something).

It's generally used (i.e., I've only ever heard it this way) in the present continuous tense, for example:

  • "I'm absolutely gagging for a pint"
  • "We got to the bar, I was gagging for a beer, as I hadn't time for one at the club."
  • "They'll be gagging for the opportunity to play live in front of a crowd."

How did it come about? According to Etymonline, the word 'gag' comes from

mid-15c., transitive, "to choke, strangle" (someone), possibly imitative and perhaps influenced by Old Norse gag-hals "with head thrown back."

But I'm not too sure how choking/strangling with all its negative connotations become associated with something positive like being very eager.

I checked phrases.org.uk and couldn't find anything, so I've drawn a blank.

And an additional point, why is it pretty much always continuous, like "I was gagging for a drink" rather than something like "I gagged for a drink"?

  • 2
    I suspect it originated with being very thirsty, as in your first two examples. Commented Oct 16, 2020 at 12:32
  • This probably isn't worth much, etymologically speaking, but my dog literally gags for things every time I take him for a walk. Commented Oct 16, 2020 at 20:59

3 Answers 3


The phrasal verb (tr.) to gag for something originates with the verb "to gag", where a gag (n.) is:

[all quotes from the OED]

gag (n.)

1.a. Something thrust into the mouth to keep it open and prevent speech or outcry; in Surgery, an apparatus for distending the jaws during an operation.

1553 T. Wilson Arte of Rhetorique 117 b Musicians in England have vsed to put gagges in childrens mouthes that they might pronounce distinctely.

1857 W. Collins Dead Secret II. v. ii. 105 If I only knew where to lay my hand on a gag, I'd cram it into your..mouth!

This explains the verb:

To gag:

2.a. transitive. To stop up the mouth of (a person) with a gag in order to prevent speech or outcry; to put a gag into (the mouth) in order to keep the jaws distended.

1509 S. Hawes Pastime of Pleasure (1845) xxxii. 159 We saw men in great tormenting, With many ladies, that their mouthes gagged.

1886 W. J. Tucker Life E. Europe 195 He bound me, and then gagged my mouth.

1.b. intransitive. To choke, literal and figurative. Also, to retch. Also transitive (causatively).

?1706 E. Hickeringill Priest-craft: 2nd Pt. v. 49 I do not, in the least, wonder, that he (that swallows Transubstantiation) should Gagg at believing, that [etc.].

1963 M. Duggan in C. K. Stead N.Z. Stories 2nd Ser. (1966) 97 Suppose you gag a little at the sugar coating, its the same old fundamental toffee, underneath.

Now we come to be "to be gagging for" "to gag for" (which is the same as to be gasping for/to gasp for)

intransitive. to be gagging for: to be desperate for, to require urgently. Originally with reference to air; subsequently also (slang, chiefly British) more widely, esp. in sexual contexts. to be gagging for it: to be desperate for sexual intercourse.

1942 C. Mytinger Headhunting in Solomon Islands ix. 65 Both spinners have choked the engine liberally, with the result that if there is any gasoline at all the engine is gagging for air.

1990 Viz Dec. 45/5 Join the army cos all the birds are gagging for squaddies.

1998 Cycling & Mountain Biking Today Apr. 40/3 The best of the Brits are all gagging for a chance to show off their jumping skills.

  • "this explains the verb". No it does not. It just reitterates the premisses of the question in more detail without providing an answer. The answer might be a little bit more difficult than one just had to "look" and "feel" it. I am not feelin it. I would hope it was rather old, effectively akin to go, perhaps unrelated to stop up, but that is a stretch I would be willing to make at least.
    – vectory
    Commented Nov 13, 2020 at 1:07
  • @vectory I would hope it was rather old Isn't 1509, old enough? That is the earliest record. There is an etymology, but it not helpful or relevant to the OP's question which asks how the verb came to have a particular meaning.
    – Greybeard
    Commented Mar 18, 2022 at 18:17
  • @vectory You may wish to ask your own question - ELL seems suitable.
    – Greybeard
    Commented Mar 19, 2022 at 10:33

Gag in the sense of craving for, strong desire for appears to be an extension of the original meaning of choke in the sense of desperate need of (air). The slang expression appears to be from early 90’s and is also used for sexual desire:

Gagging for (also gagging to) [SE gag, to choke]:

want desperate for/to.

  • 1994 [Ire] J. O’Connor Secret World of the Irish Male (1995) 74: I [...] was gagging for another bottle of Moroccan Beaujolais.
  • 1997 [UK] N. Barlay Curvy Lovebox 115: I can’t breathe an’ I’m gaggin’ for charlie.


  • I'm not familiar with GDoS, what is it? Commented Oct 16, 2020 at 15:07
  • 1
    @marcellothearcane: GDoS -> Green's Dictionary of Slang Commented Oct 16, 2020 at 15:52
  • 2
    If is a dictionary of slang expressions. It is one of the reputable sources recommended by ELU.
    – user 66974
    Commented Oct 16, 2020 at 15:54
  • your examples do not corroborate the intended conclusion, while the supposed former sense is shown later, and they are probably both irrelevant for dating.
    – vectory
    Commented Nov 13, 2020 at 0:57

This phrase was used in the movie Mission Impossible 2 with Tom Cruise. Spoken by a "bad guy in reference to a woman's lack of interest in the other bad guy." Something like, "she wasn't exactly gagging for you." I had never heard this saying before.

  • 1
    Your answer could be improved with additional supporting information. Please edit to add further details, such as citations or documentation, so that others can confirm that your answer is correct. You can find more information on how to write good answers in the help center.
    – Community Bot
    Commented Mar 18, 2022 at 5:17
  • If you had read the other answers you would have noticed the expression is much older than that. Please take our Tour to familiarize yourself with our platform, as we are not a forum. Welcome to ELU!
    – Joachim
    Commented Mar 18, 2022 at 5:57

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