I was pulling my socks up this morning, in the literal sense of the term, when I started to wonder about why pull your socks up came to mean what it does:-

to make an effort to improve your work or behaviour because it is not good enough: He's going to have to pull his socks up if he wants to stay in the team.

I searched around for the origin of the phase and turned up some not very convincing answers here (pulling your socks up to make yourself look tidier) and here (military slang, a traditional fallback for folk etymology). Neither of them have any sources cited.

So does anyone know why we came to use pull your socks up for this meaning?

  • 1
    Sources (although I can't verify them) are quoted at phrases.org.uk/bulletin_board/20/messages/165.html
    – Andrew Leach
    Commented Sep 19, 2012 at 12:09
  • I don't know why the first idea isn't convincing you. This was the first thing that came to my mind when I read the definition of this phrase.
    – Em1
    Commented Sep 19, 2012 at 12:12
  • @Em1, perhaps it is, and I'm over-complicating matters. Commented Sep 19, 2012 at 12:19

2 Answers 2



Partridge (2002) gives a definition and suggests a year but no explanation:

pull one's socks up. Often as imperative, pull your socks up!, or 'I do wish he'd pull his...': to take heard, to try harder: since ca. 1910. Var. pull up (one's) socks.

The OED collects a number of slang and colloquial phrases that use sock. In one's socks is a measure of a person's stature; to knock the socks off is to trounce another; to pull up one's socks is to make an effort.

No etymology is given for the phrase but their first three quotations are:

1893 H. F. McLelland Jack & Beanstalk Pull up your socks! I'll see naught goes wrong with you.

1906 Daily Mail The ‘smart set’ have got hold of another neat expression. ‘You must pull your socks up’ is the latest form of saying ‘Never mind’, or ‘Pull yourself together’.

1914 ‘Bartimeus’ Naval Occasions, and Some Traits of the Sailor-man Pull your socks up, Ah Chee, an' think of something.

More examples

It also appears in Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's The Stark Munro Letters (1895):

She got as far as the hall door, and then came rustling back again into the consulting room. "Take a drink of your own beer!" she cried, and vanished.

It sounded like some sort of slang imprecation. If she had said "Oh, pull up your socks!" I should have been less surprised.

Here's an example from Oliver Osborne's In the Land of the Boers (first published 1893, this revision 1900) (read online):

Throughout the wet months we had stuck religiously to the hills, leaving the valleys to fools and fever.

Poor old Harry the Reefer's claims, turned out valueless, and it behoved us to be " pulling our socks up," as the Scots say.

A when and where but not why can be found in the January 20th, 1900 edition of Notes and Queries (read online) amongst other sock phrases:

"To give one socks," meaning " to give one a good beating," is in common use in East Anglia. And so is "Pull up your socks," for "make haste" and "set to work." F. H. Marlesford.

The March 7th, 1906 Punch magazine (read online) contains the same text as the OED's Daily Mail 1906 citation. Here's a fuller quotation from Punch:

THE "Smart Set" (says a contemporary) has got hold of another neat expression. " You must pull your socks up " is the latest form of saying "Never mind," or "Pull yourself together." The other day at a Bridge dinner, it was amusing (to our contemporary) and a sign of the times to hear a certain youthful eldest son recommend a Dowager Countess of seventy to "pull her socks up."

The phrase is, perhaps, not much more than twenty years old, and so affords fresh evidence of the up-to-date-ness of the Smart Set. Other instances follow.

And, after reporting another Smart Set phrase had been heard in the East End:

This is interesting, as showing how quickly a new witticism will run through all classes of Society, like measles through an infant school. It goes without saying that, as soon as any such phrase penetrates to the lower orders, it is at once discarded by the Smart Set.

  • I think "give one socks" and "pull up your socks" likely have totally different origins. "Sock" is a verb meaning hit or punch, like "I socked him in the face." Thus "sock" as a noun can mean a punch: "I gave him a good sock in the face." I doubt this as any etymological connection with footwear. But "knock his socks off" surely does reference footwear, as in, "hit him so hard that he goes flying and leaves his socks behind".
    – Jay
    Commented Sep 19, 2012 at 14:28
  • @Jay: I agree. F. H. Marlesford in Notes and Queries wasn't saying they are connected, just that both are common in East Anglia. By the way, if you check that N&Q, nearly all the other correspondents give throw or beat meanings to the verb sock, and the editor notes it is "common slang, and used, we should say, everywhere".
    – Hugo
    Commented Sep 19, 2012 at 14:41

In support of the military explanation for the phrase, consider the image of a 16th century English soldier from this source

english soldier

  • Do you have anything more to back this up? The military 'explanation' linked in the answer is: "Pull your socks up most likey comes from nautical/military slang meaning "wake up!" (which would involve the pulling up of socks)." The soldier in this picture is wearing something that looks like socks, but he's already awake. Did these soldiers even call those leg coverings socks? (Also, the source says it's a soldier of the early 1600s, not the 16th century.)
    – Hugo
    Commented Sep 19, 2012 at 14:55
  • @Hugo There are several military references in some of the other answers. I have no additional proof of the origin. I am not suggesting that the phrase comes from either the 1600s or the 16th century, only that this illustration reflects a stockinged soldier whose muster appearance would benefit from the admonition. Many images of early 20th century and late 19th century soldiers show high socks or similar leg wrappings. See
    – bib
    Commented Sep 19, 2012 at 15:01
  • I thought in the military, it meant duck!.
    – Mazura
    Commented Aug 26, 2015 at 17:24

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