I never gave the phrase “bolt upright” much thought, but I guess I assumed the word “bolt” was some sort of adverbial. Ben Zimmer, in a recent NY Times column (primarily about whether literary language is still distinct from the vernacular in American English), treats it as a verb: “When we see a character in contemporary fiction ‘bolt upright’ or ‘draw a breath,’ we join in this silent game, picking up the subtle cues that telegraph a literary style.” Mark Liberman, in a post at the Log, was surprised, having had a sense of the word similar to mine, and asked “So is ‘bolt upright’ really a verb phrase?” He has no problem finding evidence that it has been (the OED has plenty of citations like Smollett’s “The patient, bolting upright in the bed, collared each of these assistants with the grasp of Hercules”), but clearly verbal usage seems to be rare these days, and he ends his post:

So for me, and I think for many of the contemporary writers who use the expression, “bolt upright” is just a idiomatically-modified version of the adjective upright, in which bolt has some semantic resonance with the verb bolt (as in what horses and fugitives do), and maybe with the noun in lightning bolt, but no real compositional path from its constituent parts.

That makes sense to me; how about you?


  1. Tim Buchheim says

    I’ve always thought of it as a verb, and as far as I can remember I’ve mostly seen it used as a verb. The OED lists it as obsolete or archaic (with its last example of usage in 1813) but I see it all the time in novels, as pointed out by the NY Times article. I’ve most often seen it used with “upright” but I’ve often seen it in other circumstances, as in “Startled by the noise, she bolted out the door.” (A quick Google search brings up many examples of this “out the door” usage.)

  2. I think I’ve always thought of it as some sort of adverb. I’ve usually heard it or read it as “X sat bolt upright”, where I think it’s pretty clearly not a verb.

  3. Randy Hudson says

    Probably the best account for contemporary English is indeed that “bolt upright” is an idiom: the Random House Dictionary, Oxford American Dictionary, and American Heritage Dictionary of Idioms present it thus. The latter notes this line from Chaucer: “She was … long as a mast and upright as a bolt.” But at this point the first word of “bolt upright” has little more independent meaning than the first word of “buck naked”.

  4. For me this has always clearly been an adverb without a connection to the verb ‘bolt’.
    ‘Upright’ was how I was expected to sit at the Sunday dinner table (even at home). ‘Bolt upright’ was how I and my cousins had to sit on the couch at my grandmother’s house if our fight hadn’t been quite bad enough to deserve the corner (or, gawd forbid, the willow switch) . I always associated it with the door bolts at her house which went into the floor (my parent’s house didn’t have those).

  5. I always thought it was an adverb, like “ramrod straight”; all the quotations of bolting upright were news to me, but they made sense of how the adverb came to be.

  6. I always thought there was some sense of the noun “bolt” that evoked verticality (as in the line from Chaucer that Randy quotes) which I just didn’t know. The idea that it might come from the verb bolt surprises me a bit. When you bolt, after all, you keep going: but when you sit bolt upright you stop. (And where, by the way, does “lightning bolt” come from? I’ll have to look that up.)

  7. What could one call bodily comportment that is the opposite of sitting bolt upright ? Sitting limply askew ? I like the expression from Walter Scott that one of the contributors at LL cites: “Not prone and weltering like a drowned corpse, But bolt erect as if he trode the waters.”
    When the latest horrific update was reported in the evening news, the couch potato pronely weltered.

  8. Recently discussed at
    Yes, that’s the second link in my post.

  9. Surely the horticultural origin of the adverbial phrase ‘bolt upright’ predates any technological origin. A bolting plant goes to seed in a hurry because of lack of water in the soil. Using resources already in the plant, the stem extends quickly — overnight, as people say (rhubarb simply wilts, because it doesn’t reproduce from seed). So we sit or stand bolt upright (the verbs are originally active like the plant).
    The plant bolts analogously to draft animals.
    Thoroughly urbanized people can’t be expected to think this way.

  10. iakon,
    As someone who is less than thoroughly urbanized, I have also imagined that whoever first spoke of a cultivated plant that “bolts” was thinking of a horse getting out of control. That’s very plausible. But do we actually know that the phrase “bolt upright” has anything to do with this?

  11. Truthfully, empty, I’m not at all certain that we can ‘actually know’. Rural people since the agricultural revolution may have ‘known’, but I’m sure that the linguist would brush that off as ‘folk etymology’.
    I’m curious to know if other languages (including dead ones) can contribute anything to this discussion.

  12. iakon: Rural people since the agricultural revolution may have ‘known’, but I’m sure that the linguist would brush that off as ‘folk etymology’.
    Doesn’t this amount to brushing off “the linguist” as too sophisticated to be reliable ? Everybody has reasons – often characterized as “experience” – for dismissing this or that on occasion. But we can’t conclude from this that all linguists are unscrupulous toothbrush salesmen.

  13. FWIW, etymonline says that bolt originally referred to darts or arrows, with the verb meaning to speed away coming from those by analogy. Having seen bamboo, agave, and hosta stalks shoot up, I can see how the use for plants can come from either the noun (straight rod) or the verb (mad dash).
    Bolting food would seem weirder to me, if I’d never taken an eight year old (either gender)on a hiking trip and fed them lunch two hours late, though their arms look more like addle addles than crossbows when propelling the food down their gullets.
    None of this helps with deciding where the ‘bolt upright’ idiom comes from of course, but I think the verb bolt (through the door, from the paddock) does not end with good posture. Therefore, ‘bolting upright’, just seems strange and, since I’m a native English speaker, I must know – innately, absolutely -right?

  14. Rural people since the agricultural revolution may have ‘known’, but I’m sure that the linguist would brush that off as ‘folk etymology’.
    Known that “bolting lettuce” stems from “bolting horse”? Or known that “bolt upright” stems from “bolting lettuce”? The former sounds right to me, and I’ll believe it until some lexicographer gives me a reason not to. But the latter sounds like something the farmer would have no special insight into. (And FWIW it doesn’t sound right to me. And that’s speaking as someone who knows what bolting lettuce looks like. And tastes like. Yuk.)
    By the way, which agricultural revolution did you mean?

  15. The first one, empty. And why shouldn’t a farmer think that sitting upright from a lying position in bed, or standing upright from a sitting position on a stool be like a plant bolting?

  16. What is “bolting lettuce” ?? A kind that leaves too soon, like the horse from the barn ?

  17. And what does “first agricultural revolution” refer to ? The style of living which followed on hunting-gathering, when these fell out of fashion ?

  18. @Stu: iakon tried to explain about plants that bolt in the garden.
    If lettuce, for example, gets desperately thirsty and fears for its life, then it will stop producing tasty leaves for you to eat and will instead put what resources it has into reproducing, which means suddenly creating a tall stem with seeds on it.
    So in a sense it stops leaving too soon.

  19. empty: This is like people do, right ? When they are desperately hungry and fear for their life, they put what resources they have into reproducing – thus bringing hungry kids into the world.
    I wonder if this is what Freud had in mind with his “death instinct” (Todestrieb). It would explain those reports of old men dying of a heart attack in a brothel – except that here not hungry kids, but rich young widows are brought into the world.

  20. @iakon: A farmer might well think that. Even if the agricultural/horticural sense of the verb “bolt” was not involved in the formation of the stock phrase “bolt upright”, the farmer or gardener might guess that it was.
    Does anybody have any evidence of how old the “go to seed” sense of “bolt” is? I don’t see it all in the paper OED. For all I know, it might be an Americanism.

  21. I’m not an old hat at Languagehat, but still I wonder why everyone thinks that the agricultural sense of bolt is older than all of the (multitudinous) other meanings. All of the usual suspects / I mean, sources / say otherwise.
    But still everyone is treating lettuce as more meaningful than arrows to this discussion. And while neither solves the ‘bolt upright’ problem, one definitely cures all of the lighting bolt difficulty.

  22. @JMM: Does anyone here think that the agricultural sense of bolt is older? Maybe one person does. I don’t.
    And you’ve lost me with “one definitely cures all of the light[n]ing bolt difficulty”. Which one? What difficulty?

  23. @Stu: On second thought, it’s the lettuce’s DNA that is really doing a bolt. It sees the handwriting on the wall and finds an escape pod (seed) in which to fling itself on the ground in search of a new life.

  24. I see: the selfish genes. More like rats fleeing a ship, than people screwing each other to the mast in a storm so as not to be swept overboard.
    It seems extremely difficult for everyone, not just bioscientists, to avoid the language of intentionality when describing the structure and function of impersonal biological events. DNA “sees the handwriting … finds an escape pod … to fling itself … in search of a new life”. In accordance with this ingrained type of thinking: no actor, no action.
    It’s all very well to claim that these are “harmless metaphors”. Listening attentively, dispassionately to the narration in science documentaries on biological subjects, I hear 18C deists explaining the wonderful ways in which God has set up the bestest, and most goal-directedest, of all possible worlds.
    Creationists would have nothing to gripe about, if they would just pay attention instead of jerking about like marionettes.

  25. The (first) agricultural revolution started in the mid 18C (right before the industrial revolution), when Jethro Tull invented the seed drill and recorded “Thick As A Brick”, crop rotation was found to improve the yield, and all the common land in Britain was “enclosed”, etc.
    Don’t forget the heroine’s mother who ran off, in Nancy Mitford’s The Pursuit Of Love, who was know as “the Bolter” (after a bolting horse). Nancy Mitford: now there’s an unfashionable writer.

  26. revolutions
    Maybe the stone-age discovery of bolting lettuce led to the expression “bolt upright” that was familiar to Chaucer.
    More seriously, if irrelevantly: it seems that in Middle English the word “upright” was sometimes used to mean “supine”, i.e. lying with the face up.

  27. difficult for everyone […] to avoid the language of intentionality
    It is difficult for me, Stu, but in this case I was not trying to avoid it, but rather relishing it–partly in order to spur you to some response.

  28. Oh all right then, the third. But try writing “third” on your History O-level. Not that they have O-levels nowadays, British fifteen-year-olds just get an automatic GCSE “pass” grade so that everybody’s equal and no one becomes sad and cries. When I was a lad in Yorkshire we had to work to become rich and famous; nowadays it’s handed to them on a silver bloody plate.

  29. empty: what I wrote might be worth thinking about, no matter what the occasion of my writing it. As a bonus, apart from the last sentence, it contains not a word of criticism of anyone, nor any suggestion that anyone is doing anything wrong, or in the wrong way. To Creationists I merely say: “buck up, guys !”.
    Of course it may be, after all, that most people have already taken such ideas on board, and I have just missed the boat. I do wonder where this cognitive boat is headed, though. And whether our DNA is about to jump ship.

  30. How right you are, Crown ! All play and no work makes Jack a dull boy.

  31. Randy Hudson says

    @Ø: According to the Shorter OED, 6th ed., 2007, the ‘go to seed’ sense of ‘bolt’ dates from the late 19th C.

  32. Is there a name for a word that has two definitions meaning the opposite of each other? “To bolt” is one of these: to run away and to screw fast. Actually, “fast” is close to being another.

  33. No one’s mentioned it, so I’ll just say that a bolt of cloth is, according to the OED,
    generally of a definite length; being, in various cases, 30 yards, 28 ells, or 40 feet.
    The ell itself is
    a measure of length varying in different countries. The English ell = 45 in.; the Scotch 37.2; the Flemish 27 in.The word ell seems to have been variously taken to represent the distance from the shoulder or from the elbow to the wrist or to the fingertips…

  34. Crown: Some have called them auto-antonyms and others contranyms.
    Another example is cleave ‘split’ < OE cleofan < PIE *gleubh- and cleave ‘adhere’ < OE clifian < PIE *gloi-. The former is related to clever (o-grade) and glyph (zero-grade), the latter to glue (borrowed) and clay (native).
    In OE days, the verbs were even more distinct because the former was strong (irregular), as the adjective (and old past participle) cloven shows. Both verbs are usually regular now, but the former verb may also have clove or clave, and the latter cleft, though cleft is now more often an adjective or noun. As Etymonline points out, all this confusion probably accounts for the replacement of the two cleaves in ordinary language by split and stick respectively.
    As for fast, its original sense is ‘firmly fixed, stable’; the sense ‘firm’ > ‘strong, vigorous’ > ‘swift’ developed later, probably in the phrase run fast, which originally meant the same as run hard, that is, strongly or vigorously.

  35. Great, John. I thought there must be a word.
    They have fest to mean “stick” or “fasten” in Norwegian (and I think German?), so I figured that was the original, but it’s strange to think that “firmly fixed” might evolve into “swift”.

  36. Ein’ feste Burg ist unser Gott

  37. Yeah, He’s a fast one.

  38. People have largely lost sight of the fact that in the expression “fast and loose” the word “fast” means the opposite of “loose”. It’s not, for example, about fast living and loose morals.

  39. That’s cute, empty, but it’s playing fast and loose with the expression “fast and loose” to say “people have largely lost sight of” something hardly anyone, including myself, had ever heard about: the 14th C “cheating game” fast-and-loose.

  40. empty: depending on how light falls onto my laptop screen I don’t see certain links – such as your “fast and loose” one. I thought you were playing fast and loose without a link.

  41. Let me resubmit it, then:
    In the old meaning of the phrase “to play fast and loose” the word “fast” means the opposite of “loose”. The reference is to a deceptive game in which a stick is now held, now released, by a loop. Of course, in modern usage the game is forgotten. I imagine that most people hear “fast” and “loose” as adverbs telling how one is “playing” rather than hearing “fast and loose” as a noun phrase telling what one is playing.
    Apart from the fact that the game itself is forgotten, I would attribute this to the fact that the “rapid’ sense of “fast” is nowadays the one you think of first; and also to expressions like “fast living”, “fast women”, and “loose morals”.
    I remember once reading about someone “playing very fast and very loose” with something. This would have not seemed odd to me in former years, before I happened to learn the origin of the phrase.

  42. Maybe I didn’t even mean “noun phrase”. I suppose that the name of the game is more like a single word, whether or not you hyphenate it.

  43. I didn’t see anything about people betting though without a carrot it might have become a teeny bit boring. It’s possibly a grander three-card monte?

  44. I remember once reading about someone “playing very fast and very loose” with something
    “Play fast and loose with the truth” is the one I know. Or, in Shakespeare somewhere, “play fast and loose with faith”.

  45. Yes, but when you play fast and loose with the truth are you playing fast with the truth and playing loose with the truth? Or are you playing a game called “fast and loose” with the truth (as one might play noughts and crosses with the truth–or battledore and shuttlecock, or chutes and ladders)?

  46. as one might play noughts and crosses with the truth
    I hereby challenge you to a game: X

  47. Your truth-game uses a notation I am not familiar with. Is that a Sheffer stroke with wings ?

  48. My guess is that playing the game “fast and loose” with the truth was the original meaning, but it would be better if it were updated to “playing three-card monte with the truth”; it’s a more vivid contemporary image.
    Since noughts and crosses can always be won or at worst drawn, to play it with the truth implies a cocky player with diabolical intentions.

  49. Stu: I don’t know the rules. I’m improvising. It’s a cross.
    AJP: “playing three-card monte with the truth” Exactly. Or the old shell game.
    Surely somewhere in the back of my mind was that scene in a parody of a Bergman film, in which a man plays badminton with death.

  50. De Düva. Oh, sure, some might call it sophomoric humor, but when I was a college sophomore it made me laugh like a loon. And it’s Madeleine Kahn’s film debut! Plus it won the Golden Escargot at the Pan-Europa Festival du Cinema! Go on, watch it, I guarantee at least one cheap laugh that will make it worth your while.

  51. Haha, that’s funny. The fake Swedish is brilliant.

  52. I was wrong; it is a woman who plays badminton with Death.

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