Learn English – Origin of the expression “to be gagging to do something”


There's an informal British meaning to the word gag, which is

  1. [to] be very eager to have or do (something).

It's generally used (i.e., I've only ever heard it this way) in the present continuous tense, for example:

  • "I'm absolutely gagging for a pint"
  • "We got to the bar, I was gagging for a beer, as I hadn't time for one at the club."
  • "They'll be gagging for the opportunity to play live in front of a crowd."

How did it come about? According to Etymonline, the word 'gag' comes from

mid-15c., transitive, "to choke, strangle" (someone), possibly imitative and perhaps influenced by Old Norse gag-hals "with head thrown back."

But I'm not too sure how choking/strangling with all its negative connotations become associated with something positive like being very eager.

I checked phrases.org.uk and couldn't find anything, so I've drawn a blank.

And an additional point, why is it pretty much always continuous, like "I was gagging for a drink" rather than something like "I gagged for a drink"?

Best Answer

Gag in the sense of craving for, strong desire for appears to be an extension of the original meaning of choke in the sense of desperate need of (air). The slang expression appears to be from early 90’s and is also used for sexual desire:

Gagging for (also gagging to) [SE gag, to choke]:

want desperate for/to.

  • 1994 [Ire] J. O’Connor Secret World of the Irish Male (1995) 74: I [...] was gagging for another bottle of Moroccan Beaujolais.
  • 1997 [UK] N. Barlay Curvy Lovebox 115: I can’t breathe an’ I’m gaggin’ for charlie.