Pull up your socks

Ruth Griffiths

If someone tells you to “pull up your socks,” they are telling you to make an effort to improve your work or behaviour. The idiom encourages us to get up and achieve something, try extra hard to do it. It can also mean to prepare yourself for a difficult situation.

It’s a strange phrase that seems to have retained its meaning for more than a century. The phrase can be found from a cricket club report in a newspaper dated 1887. In the report a supporter encourages his team to “pull their socks up” if they intend to perform better in future cricket matches.

Another newspaper refers to the increase in drunkenness in Wales during the 1880s during a trial where the crowd is constantly asking for Port wine. The speaker tells the crowd to stop being drunken fools and to pull their socks up. The meaning from the 1880s seems to be the same as the phrase that we use today.

Another possible origin of the phrase is with the British army. Soldiers, when they were away on duty, would usually sleep in their full uniform including their boots. When they were awakened, the commanding officer would order the soldiers to “pull your socks up” as this was the only thing the soldiers needed to do to be fully dressed and ready for action. (Source: wordhistories.net)

Others say the phrase originates from the sport of running. To pull up the socks would mean that the race is about to start and hence the athletes would have to be prepared for it. (Source: theidioms.com)

A grimmer origin of the phrase relates to Australia which was settled as a British penal colony. Prisoners wore shackles which left ugly scars on their ankles. When they were freed of their chains they were advised to pull up their socks before looking for work.

Socks are important for the health of your feet. Socks absorb moisture and help prevent shoes from rubbing on bare foot. Socks provide cushioning to pad the feet and help keep them warm.

In ancient times, socks were made from leather or matted animal hair. The felted wool foot coverings used by ancient Mongolians were called uggs, a word transformed today into a brand name for a popular soft boot.

In the 8th century BC, Greeks wore socks with sandals. These stockings were made from matted animal hair. As we do today, the sandals were removed when entering the house and people walked around the house in their socks.

The earliest knitted socks were crafted in Egypt. Ancient knitted garments were made of natural fibres such as cotton, wool and silk.

So whether you want to improve your behaviour, or you just want to keep your feet warm, “pull up your socks”, and know that you are continuing an ancient practice.