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to have someone over a barrel

An expression I found in Stieg Larsson's phenomenal thriller The Girl who kicked the hornets'_nest - page 140.
Volume 3 of the Millennium series 1-3.
The Geman meaning is - jemand in der Hand haben.

I like to ask myself where the images of idioms come from. In the above example I would think of the military area.

I would like to know what images native speakers associate with this expression and of course German speakers as well.

I think there are a lot of English expressions having the meaning of German jemand in der Hand haben.
Perhaps some of the readers can contribute other expressions with the same meaning.

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though I have never seen this expression before I can imagine the origin of it:
I do not believe in the military use, because "over a barrel" does not make sense with a gun-barrel. I think the origin is a real barrel, where in former times culprits where put and fastened upon to be flogged. So once you had someone over a barrel he was completely in your hand to do with him whatever you thought appropriate.

If anyone has a better explanation ... feel free to bring it forward (no threat of flogging, cursing or anything else!)


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Hello Anton, I completely agree with you. I too think of a real barrel lying on the ground with a person
laid over it and with arms and legs fastened to the ground with ropes.

I must admit the idiom is new to me as well, but I was fascinated by the wonderful translation into a picture of the German to have someone in one's hand.

If the expression is really of current usage and widely known I can't say. At least I find the expression in Collins (Sony Reader) and in the electronic dictionary of Casio - without any remark such as 'dated' or the like. So I take it the expression is current usage - especially as I found it in Stieg Larrsson novel which was translated from Swedish into English in 2009.

It is possible that in the Middle Ages it was a custom to flog someone in punishment by fastening the person over a barrel. Would be an interesting research on the internet as to methods and ways of punishment.

I thought of the military field of this barrel-method for torturing an enemy soldier to get information out of him. A soldier lying over a barrel naked and threatened with the point of a sword or knife will easily give any information wanted.

There would be another possiblity: soldiers raping caught women.

What I'm most interested in is what native speakers make of this expression - if they have the same
associations or perhaps totally different ideas.

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and another expression for this:

to have someone by the balls - as found in Jethro Tull's all-time classic "Locomotive breath"

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Yes - that's it exactly! Good contribution! It's what I call 'familiar slang' covering all the hints as vulgar, familiar and so on - but it's a wonderful picture.

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Anton, you seem to have an interest in idioms. What would you guess how many idioms a language has?

Or if someone would like to know a good part of this special sector in the dictionary how many idioms should someone know to get a feeling for this kind of vocabulary?