How we got “sacked”

Yes, getting sacked does originally involve bags. 

Just ten days into his new role as White House Communications Director, Anthony “the Mooch” Scaramucci was sacked, as a number of British headlines having been putting his firing while General John Kelly takes over as Trump’s Chief of Staff.

Where does this expression, getting sacked, come from?

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You’re fired! (Pixabay)

In the “bag”

To get sacked, or “be dismissed from employment,” is first attested in 1841, according to the Oxford English Dictionary (OED). The colloquial verbal construction is taken from an earlier phrase, to get the sack, which the OED finds in 1825. But the saying isn’t original to English.

In his influential 1611 French-English dictionary, English lexicographer Randle Cotgrave recorded the French phrase on luy a donné son sac, which he glosses as “he hath his passport given him (said of a servant whom his master hath put away).” It literally means “he was given his sack” and in Cotgrave’s day, passport could mean “dismissal.” Even older is the Middle Dutch expression iemand den zak geven, “to give someone the sack” and den zak krijgen, “to get the sack.”

What do sacks, though, have to do with losing your job? There’s no definitive explanation, but the leading suggestion is that tradesman, historically, brought their own tools to jobs. When their services were no longer needed, the employer, so it goes, presented the worker with a bag to carry away his tools in—they got the sack.

The word sack itself has proven remarkably durable and well-travelled. We already saw the French sac and Dutch zak, which—along with the Old English sacc, precursor to today’s sack—go back to the Latin saccus (“sack, bag”). This, in turn, is from the Greek sakkos (σάκκος), borrowed from a Semitic root that shows up in the Hebrew saq and Assyrian saqqu. The ultimate source—which I find incredible for such as simple, humble little word—may be Phoenician or Egyptian. 

To sack, or “plunder,” a city may also be related. Some etymologists have supposed Latin’s saccus produced a verb, saccare, literally “to put in a bag,” referring to plunder being carried off in bags.

Glutton for punishment?

Fortunately for Scaramucci, he didn’t get another kind of ancient Roman sack: the poena cullei (“penalty of the sack”). This involved a person being sewn into a leather bag—sometimes even with live animals such as snakes, dogs, and chickens—and then being tossed into water to drown as punishment for parricide.

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George Baker’s Sad Sack (comicvine.com)

Instead, I suspect the Mooch—a sad sack, as we might use an expression from American cartoonist George Baker’s World War II-era comic strip, Sad Sack, featuring a blundering soldier—will be sorting out his short and tumultuous tenure over a bottle or two of sack. This is an old word for a kind of sherry we know from Shakespeare’s Falstaff, who memorably quipped in Henry IV: “If sack and sugar be a fault, then God help the wicked.” The origin of this sack, from the French vin sec (“dry wine”), apparently comes from the Latin siccus (“dry,” hence desiccated).

m ∫ r ∫

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