Meaning “to an extreme degree,” this saying crept into American English slang in the 19th century, first used differently in “Legends of a Log Cabin,” by Chandler Robbins Gilman, 1835, page 198:
“Squire and Ma’am wouldn’t have no objections; but Sally wouldn’t look at him in the courtin’ line, and no wonder, the doctor was forty if he was a day, and about as good looking as ‘get out;’ any how, Sally wouldn’t have nothin’ to say to him.”
This form may be also found in “Charcoal Sketches” by Joseph C. Neal in 1838:
“We look as elegant and beautiful as get-out.”
Note: both had to do with a person’s looks.
Then, in May, 1864, The Ladies’ Repository has what could be the first printed reference to the current phrase in an article by Mrs. Caroline Soule titled “A Soldier of the Republic:”
“If I’d come home and told her he was a captain, or colonel, or even first lieutenant, I’ll bet she’d had a high old time over it; but because he’s had sense enough to go into the ranks, she’s huffy as — as all get out; and he slammed the front door after him.”
A similar expression is to the hilt. Now most often preceded by “mortgaged,” this very old, curious expression means “to the maximum possible,” and may be used in either positive or negative connotations.
The “hilt” originally referred to the handle of a dagger or sword. It came into Old English before 900 CE from the Old Saxon helta, meaning handle. In Old Norse it was hilt. Plunging a weapon in to the hilt meant the blade went all the way in to the handle. Figurative use of “to the hilt” came in 1687 according to more than one popular online source. Such a reference is illusive, though many are available with literal meaning.
In fact popular figurative use of the term didn’t occur until the late 19th to early 20th century. An early citation occurs in a book about the negative effects of performing operations on animals for scientific research, Vivisection, by Mona Caird 1895, Page 3:
“That the cruelties of vivisection are terrible can, of course, be proved to the hilt from the works of the vivisectors themselves.”
Stan St. Clair is the author of the best-selling book, “Most Comprehensive Origins of Clichés, Proverbs and Figurative Expressions.” If you would like to know the origin of a favorite expression, text him at 931-212-3303, or email firstname.lastname@example.org.