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over a barrel

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In a weak or difficult position, as in Once the competitors found a flaw in our product, they had us over a barrel. This slangy expression, first recorded in 1938, supposedly alludes to reviving a drowning victim by placing the body head down over a barrel and rolling it back and forth, so as to empty the lungs of water. The expression survives, although happily the practice does not.

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The American Heritage® Idioms Dictionary Copyright © 2002, 2001, 1995 by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company. Published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company.

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