Where Did the Phrase ‘Got You Over a Barrel’ Come From?
If someone has you ‘over a barrel,’ it’s never a good sign. This phrase means you’re in an extremely vulnerable position, and another human being (most likely not a friend) is taking advantage of that vulnerability.
Imagine, for example, you ‘borrowed’ some money from the petty cash account at work and 'accidentally' forgot to pay it back. Could happen to anyone, right? But then one of your colleagues finds out and threatens to tell the boss, unless you type up his or her reports for the next six months.
In other words, when you’re over a barrel, you're a prime target for blackmail.
There are two possible explanations about the origins of this phrase. The first comes from the penitentiary system, where misbehaving prisoners were, back in the day, routinely fastened to barrels and flogged.
The second explanation stems from the practice of tossing a person who has almost drowned over a barrel to help clear water from the lungs. Regardless of the barrel in question, you undoubtedly wouldn’t want to linger in either position for any extended period of time.
If, during the course of your life, you find that others are often putting you over a barrel, you might want to rethink how you conduct your affairs, and please, stop associating with the criminally minded.