What does the phrase “up the spout” mean and Where does it come from?

When we say that something is or has gone “up the spout,” we mean, usually, that plans have gone awry, that affairs are hopeless.

This is literal as well as figurative, for “spout” is slang for a pawnbroker’s shop, to which we turn when things are desperate and we need cash.

Mr. Pickwick, as readers of Dickens’ works will know, discovered that meaning when he visited Fleet Prison to see his friend, Mr. Alfred Jingle, who, imprisoned for debt, had pawned his coat, boots, and other raiment for food; he had sent them, Jingle said, to “Spout, dear relation, uncle Tom.”

The real spout was, in former days, the hoist or elevator within a pawnbroker’s shop by which articles pawned were carried to an upper floor for storage. Such articles literally went “up the spout.”

The literal meaning is old enough to have been recorded in A new and comprehensive vocabulary of the flash language by James H. Vaux in 1812.

About Karen Hill

Karen Hill is a freelance writer, editor, and columnist. Born in New York, her work has appeared in the Examiner, Yahoo News, Buzzfeed, among others.

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