Bolting upright, he reached for his dictionary

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In the NYT this weekend, Ben Zimmer has a great piece on new horizons in humanities computing:  "The Jargon of the Novel, Computed", 7/29/2011. The article is illustrated with a bar chart of the frequency in COCA of "bolt upright" in various genres:

Among the nuggets you can find in Ben's article is an allusion to David Bamman and Gregory Crane, "The Logic and Discovery of Textual Allusion", LaTeCH2008, which alone is worth the price of admission. But the thing that mainly struck me was the possibility that I'd gotten "bolt upright" wrong, all these years.

Here's the clue, in (elliptical) context:

Has a vernacular style become the standard for the typical fiction writer? Or is literary language still a distinct and peculiar beast? […]

When the lexicographer Orin Hargraves was studying collocations for a project at Oxford University Press […], he struck upon a trove of collocations that “would not be statistically significant were it not for their appearance in fiction.” […]

Hargraves found peculiar patterns in simple words like the verb “brush.” Everybody talks about brushing their teeth, but other possible companions, like “hair,” “strand,” “lock” and “lip,” appear up to 150 times more frequently in fiction than in any other genre. […]

“Bolting upright” and “drawing one’s breath” are two more fiction-specific turns of phrase revealed by the corpus. […]

When we see a character in contemporary fiction “bolt upright” or “draw a breath,” we join in this silent game, picking up the subtle cues that telegraph a literary style.

Now, there's absolutely no question that "bolt upright" is a feature of literary style. On top of Ben's evidence from COCA, I can add the fact that in more than 25 million words of LDC conversational transcripts, it occurs exactly zero times. But I realized, reading Ben's article, that I had always thought of the role of bolt in that phrase as some kind of weird adverb. I also realized that I could not think of any facts to support this assumption. And I'm certainly aware that bolt is a verb with a plausibly related meaning "to move suddenly" or "to take flight".

So is "bolt upright" really a verb phrase?

It turns out that the OED has an entry for "bolt, adv.", where "The n. and stem of the vb. [is] used to qualify adjectives and verbs", because "The n. is used similatively (cf. snow-white adj. and n., sand-blind adj.)".

All of the examples allegedly modifying adjectives involve "bolt upright" or "bolt uprightness", as I'd expect:

1580 T. North tr. Plutarch Lives (1676) 706   His hair stood bolt upright upon his head.
1635 R. Brathwait tr. M. Silesio Arcadian Princesse 158   Epimonos all this while sat bolt-upright in a chaire.
1824 W. Irving Tales of Traveller I. 87,   I suddenly sprang bolt upright in my chair, and awoke.
1726 N. Amhurst Terræ-filius xxix. 155   That bolt uprightness of mien.
1850 H. B. Stowe Uncle Tom's Cabin xv. 152   Stiffness and squareness, and bolt-uprightness.

There's one lonely archaic case where bolt seems to modify a prepositional phrase:

1651 J. Cleveland Poems 12   On his knees‥With hands bolt up to Heaven.

There are two examples where the OED says that "The vb. stem is used adv. to express a sudden rapid motion; = ‘bolting, with one bolt, straight’":

1839 T. Hood I'm not Single Man vi, in Hood's Own 123/2   Bolt up the stairs they ran.
1877 J. S. Blackie Wise Men Greece 121   A pitchy pillar of thick-volumed smoke Shot bolt to heaven.

I'm not clear how it's possible to tell that this is the verb stem rather than the noun.

So at this point I was thinking to myself, could Ben have misconstrued this idiom? But it turns out to be me whose psychological lexicon was wrong, or at least incomplete. The OED also give sense 1.b. for bolt the verb, "To spring or start; esp. with up, upright":

1771 T. Smollett Humphry Clinker II. 108   The patient, bolting upright in the bed, collared each of these assistants with the grasp of Hercules.
1813 Scott Bridal of Triermain ii. x. 67   Screaming with agony and fright, He bolted twenty feet upright.

And despite the fact that the OED qualifies this verbal "bolt upright" as "Obs. or arch.", there are many thousands of recent Google Books results for "bolted upright", "bolting upright", and "bolts upright", indicating that this locution is alive and well in the literary patois:

I bolted upright in bed, torn from sleep, out of breath. (2005)
Kimberly bolted upright from the chair, her braid askew. (2008)
Right about then, in the clown theater of my brain, I bolted upright and shouted “Eureka! (2009)
She bolted upright, heart racing, and saw Jamie in the doorway behind her brother. (2010)

"What," Kate demanded, bolting upright, "do you think you're doing?" (2000)
Bolting upright and snatching her wrap from its hook she hurried out into the hallway where a quivering hand held a candle aloft, revealing the pale face of Mrs. Forsythe. (2003)
"You sound like hell," I said, bolting upright in bed. (2006)
Bolting upright, he grabbed his gun and took aim. (2011)

Live and learn. Oh, and I learned something else as well: the use of similative to characterize the role of nouns in expressions like "snow white" (and "stone dead", "bone dry", "ice cold", "dog tired", etc.).

Update — For some indirect evidence that the contemporary literary usage of "bolt upright" tends to involve bolt as an adjectival modifier rather than a verb, look at this comparison of distribution across forms between "bolt upright" and "sit upright" (counts from the Fiction section of COCA):

FRAME "bolt" count "bolt" % "sit" count "sit" percent
__ upright 134 63,4% 26 14.3%
__ing upright 1 0.5% 55 30.2%
bolted/sat upright 39 19.9% 85 46.7%
__s upright 22 11.2% 16 8.8%
TOTAL 196 100% 182 100%

And of the 134 hits in fiction for "bolt upright", 112 are instances of the pattern "sit|sits|sat|sitting bolt upright", in which bolt clearly corresponds to what the OED calls a "noun used similatively". The same thing is true of most of the remaining cases, like

even the slightest rustle was enough to bring me bolt upright in bed
He popped bolt upright.
in front of us sat her dad bolt upright
She was bolt upright in one of the old chairs
Blood rushes to my head and I jump to my feet bolt upright.
He stands BOLT upright.

There appear to be only five(of 134) examples where "bolt" is a verb:

A sharp rap on the door caused Larissa to bolt upright,
I bolt upright in bed and call " Mom! " in a quick jerk of breath
Tries to bolt upright. But his ARMS and LEGS. ARE CLAMPED to the bed.
I bolt upright at five A.M.
An ear-splitting THUNDER CRASH causes the boy to bolt upright in bed

Update #2 — I should clarify what seems weird to me about bolt as a quasi-adverb — a "similative" noun — in "bolt upright".

First, the relevant sense of bolt as a noun, meaning "A sudden spring or start", is rare at best — and the OED's most recent citation for it is from 1594.

Second, similar but more common nouns like jump or lurch or leap don't work with upright in the pattern represented by "snow white", "stone cold" and the like:

*even the slightest rustle was enough to bring me jump upright in bed
*He popped lurch upright.
*in front of us sat her dad leap upright

The theory that "bolt upright" might be based on the "crossbow bolt" sense of bolt doesn't really fare any better in analogical cases:

*even the slightest rustle was enough to bring me arrow upright in bed
*He popped stick upright.
*in front of us sat her dad spear upright

So for me, and I think for many of the contemporary writers who use the expression, "bolt upright" is just a idiomatically-modified version of the adjective upright, in which bolt has some semantic resonance with the verb bolt (as in what horses and fugitives do), and maybe with the noun in lightning bolt, but no real compositional path from its constituent parts.


  1. dw said,

    July 31, 2011 @ 12:24 pm

    This is OT, but of interest to LLers (what's the favored way to bring stuff like this to LL's attention?)

    A classic example of preposition-at-end-of-sentence avoidance leading to mangled syntax:

    It all depends on to whom you listen.

    Can Obama raise the debt limit by himself?, Michael Kirkland,

  2. Rodger C said,

    July 31, 2011 @ 12:30 pm


  3. Ray Girvan said,

    July 31, 2011 @ 12:30 pm

    Interesting. There are a number of turns of phrase that I've long thought of as "writerese": constructs that you very seldom see except in not-very-good fiction. Two classic ones are "winked conspiratorially" and "dumped whatever unceremoniously".

  4. Ian Preston said,

    July 31, 2011 @ 12:42 pm

    All of the examples allegedly modifying adjectives involve "bolt upright" or "bolt uprightness", as I'd expect

    These examples seem to show it used with other adjectives with similar meaning:

    The executive sat up bolt straight (Frederick Forsyth)

    Not prone and weltering like a drowned corpse, But bolt erect as if he trode the waters (Sir Walter Scott)

    As the birds stand bolt erect their resemblance to small penguins while performing this act is both curious and striking. (Alexander Wetmore)

  5. JHH said,

    July 31, 2011 @ 1:16 pm

    I use the verb "bolt" in speech: He bolted, and they ran after him. Weird?

    [(myl) No — as indicated in the post, "bolt" is a perfectly normal verb meaning "to move suddenly" or "to take flight". The question is whether uses of the collocation "bolt upright" in fiction are instances of this verb, or something else.]

  6. Yu Han said,

    July 31, 2011 @ 1:54 pm

    The examples in maroon make a delightfully surreal vignette if read in succession.
    Also, I imagine many people are now experiencing bouts (boults? bolts? boats?) of semantic satiation after reading this article.

  7. Ben said,

    July 31, 2011 @ 1:58 pm

    "Bolt" as a verb also has a horticultural sense. When it gets too hot, your lettuce "bolts", meaning it grows vertically very rapidly, and flowers (this is bad). Probably, this is just connected to the "move suddenly" meaning. But some connection with up-directed growth and the uprightness in "bolt upright" seems at least vaguely plausible.

  8. Ian P said,

    July 31, 2011 @ 2:00 pm

    I'd always assumed that the 'bolt' in question was the large rolls of cloth as used in textile industries and the phrase was to conjure up an image of a person standing rigidly in the same way the bolt would – if upright.

    But perhaps that's as a result of growing up in 1950's/1960's East Midlands (UK).

  9. Aaron Binns said,

    July 31, 2011 @ 2:44 pm

    Another data point: 16,114 hits for bolt upright. in the ~14 million books in Open Library.

  10. Xmun said,

    July 31, 2011 @ 4:24 pm

    Here's another OT question: why is the abbreviation for the Corpus of Contemporary American English not COCAE? (I have printed out Ben Zimmer's NYT article and am about to read it.)

    I have always assumed that "bolt" in "bolt upright" was a noun used as a modifier, but never bothered to consider which of the multitudinous senses of "bolt" was relevant. Knowing the state of the lettuces in my vegetable patch, I can see the attraction of the verbal sense.

  11. Mark Mandel said,

    July 31, 2011 @ 4:56 pm

    @Aaron Binns said,
    "Another data point: 16,114 hits for bolt upright. in the ~14 million books in Open Library."

    …. of which about80% are preceded by a form of "sit" or "stand":

    sit bolt upright 817
    sits bolt upright 421
    sitting bolt upright 3,460
    sat bolt upright 5,963
    stand bolt upright 232
    stands bolt upright 127
    standing bolt upright 833
    stood bolt upright 1,033

    TOTAL 12,886

    These numbers are inflated by duplicate entries, e.g. for "sitting bolt upright" we have the same snippets from

    Thomas Jonathan Jackson, 1824-1863 by Edward Conrad Smith Published in 1920 by Society of historical engravings • 52 pages •

    and from

    Thomas Jonathan Jackson, 1824-1863
    by Edward Conrad Smith Published in 1920 by Society of historical engravings • 48 pages •

    I also noticed that many of the snippets were accompanied by other quotations from the same source that included one or more of the words specified, but not as a phrase. How does the search work? Are we really looking at as many instances as it seems, even aside from the duplicates?

  12. Sigga said,

    July 31, 2011 @ 5:07 pm

    I ride horses so most often run into "bolt" as a verb, bolting horses, and wow he almost bolted on me etc

    So when I've seen bolt upright I've parsed the bolt part as a verb usually.

  13. Rubrick said,

    July 31, 2011 @ 5:41 pm

    I'm sure an analysis of song lyrics would reveal even more extreme jargonization. (Has anyone ever used the phrase "make romance" outside a song?)

  14. Ellen K. said,

    July 31, 2011 @ 6:40 pm

    Sigga, how can you parse "bolt" as a verb in a phrase like "sat bold upright"? I don't see how that's possible. Or do you mean understand it as coming from the verb? That I can see, but I can't see how it can actually be a verb there. It may possibly refer to an action, but it seems to me it can no more be parsed as a verb than the word "run" can in "I went for a run", where "run", though referring to an action, is clearly a noun.

  15. Valentine said,

    July 31, 2011 @ 8:11 pm

    My favorite literary phrase is "whistled tunelessly." For some reason it is always in the past tense. COCA finds only 5 instances of it, 4 in a fiction and the fifth in a skiing magazine describing the wind.

  16. Xmun said,

    July 31, 2011 @ 8:25 pm

    Google didn't take long tofind these other examples of whistle/whistles/whistling tunelessly:

    Arthur, who was stropping a razor and whistling tunelessly, raised his eyebrows. (P. G. Wodehouse)

    a 1950s cartoon character might whistle tunelessly to give an impression of benign innocence

    Now he's older and wiser — he just whistles tunelessly after missing a short putt (but look closer — there's steam coming out of his ears!)

  17. Matt said,

    July 31, 2011 @ 8:39 pm

    Ben Zimmer is the executive producer of Visual­ and and the former On Language columnist for The Times Magazine.

    Just a little salt in the wound for us all there.

  18. Rod Johnson said,

    July 31, 2011 @ 9:24 pm

    I note your five examples all have bolt in base form (third person singular or infinitive). Bolted upright seems horrible to me, but a google search turned up examples ("I bolted upright out of a sound sleep" etc.). Does that occur in your corpus at all? That would indicate a productive use of the verb sense, vs. a reanalyzed use of a more or less frozen idiom.

  19. Rod Johnson said,

    July 31, 2011 @ 9:29 pm

    Just realized I could answer my own question: 47 instances in COCA, mostly but not all fiction.

  20. Jerry Friedman said,

    August 1, 2011 @ 12:35 am

    @Ellen K.: Bolt in bolt upright could in principle be a verb much as stand is in standfast (less often spelled stand fast).

    They stood standfast = They stood as those who stand fast (somewhat redundantly)

    He sat bolt upright = He sat as one who bolted (moved swiftly) upright

    Of course, the OED says it's really similative (thanks for the word, BZ and MYL), "upright as a bolt". An arrow, I assume.

    I feel sure there are other examples, maybe archaic, where a verb-adverb compound acts as an adverb like this. I can't think of any at the moment, though. Run breakneck, with a verb-object compound, might be similar.

  21. Ethan said,

    August 1, 2011 @ 12:53 am

    On the possible similative use of "bolt": Could the OED simply have missed uses of "bolt" as a noun over the past 500 years. It's not hard to find current text of the horsey sort via Google:

    an experienced rider would maybe not call it a bolt when a horse runs for 300 feet and gets under control
    for a full on gallop of a bolt, think 100m circle
    my legs were not very quiet and I think I caused a bolt or two
    Horses question: Can a horse go faster than a bolt?

    [(myl) This is quite likely true. But I doubt that many people writing "sat bolt upright" are thinking of this word. And anyhow, the derivation would be quite irregular: "*sat jump upright", "*stood lurch upright", etc.]

  22. Jerry Friedman said,

    August 1, 2011 @ 12:53 am

    Maybe I should have written adjective one or both times I wrote adverb in my last paragraph above. I'll let others decide.

  23. C Thornett said,

    August 1, 2011 @ 12:57 am

    It is interesting that sit/stand bolt upright seems to be used both for the state and the act of sitting/standing, which perhaps adds to the ambiguity.

  24. maidhc said,

    August 1, 2011 @ 1:10 am

    If the OED says the noun is used similatively in "sand-blind", I believe the OED is wrong.

    It was originally "sam-blind", where "sam" is an obsolete word meaning "half" (related to "semi", I expect).

    Hence the joke of Prof. Tolkien naming one of his characters "Samwise Gamgee".

    I wonder if "bolt upright" refers to "bolt" meaning an arrow? We still talk about "straight-arrow".

  25. Ben Hemmens said,

    August 1, 2011 @ 2:53 am

    Re the similative role of bolt, could there have been another, perhaps now forgotten, thing called a bolt that would have suggested uprightness back in the 1500s?

    A bolt of cloth is the only other one, apart from a bolt on a door or a crossbow bolt, that occurs to me. None of them impressively upstanding, to my mind.

    Could there have been a part of a house or boat or some piece of equipment that needed to be exactly vertical?

    [(myl) Elsewhere in the comments, people mention bolt "roll of cloth" and bolt "arrow (as for a crossbow)". But such sources would still be irregular, since we don't generally see things like "??he sat column upright" or "??she stood arrow upright".]

    Then again, bolt comes up in gardening, as in "the cabbage has bolted", which means the head has opened and a flowering spike has come out; that's a fairly sudden and vertical event.

  26. Ellen K. said,

    August 1, 2011 @ 7:56 am

    @Jerry: But "stand" is not a verb in "They stood standfast". It's part of an adverb. That it comes from a verb (whether directly or via the noun "standfast") does not make it a verb any more than "run" is a verb in the example I gave ("I went for a run").

    As for "They stood standfast = They stood as those who stand fast (somewhat redundantly)", two examples having the same meaning does not mean they can be parsed the same.

  27. Robert Furber said,

    August 1, 2011 @ 9:16 am

    I believe this may have been anticipated somewhat by America's finest news source:,5289/

  28. Duncan said,

    August 1, 2011 @ 9:28 am

    This talk of arrow/crossbow bolts gave me an inspiration.

    "Imagine, if you will" (just /had/ to use that =;^), an archer back some centuries ago, with a quiver on his back.

    Were he to sit down, not ready to take off his quiver, he'd perhaps by some necessity, sit "bolt upright." No? Particularly so if he had poison-tipped arrows and didn't want to chance being carelessly exposed to them.

    Just a visualization; probably nothing more, but I thought I'd post it.


  29. Jake Nelson said,

    August 1, 2011 @ 9:40 am

    Huh, I've read "bolt upright" or some variant thereof many, many times… always struck me as one of those things that would never appear in normal usage, but I never thought that bolt was anything but a verb… I've only seen it in usages like "he bolted upright" or "it caused him to bolt upright" with the assumption that it was identical to the bolt of "he bolted out the door". Much like "shot", "he shot up", "he shot to his feet", etc. (The Online Etymology Dictionary matches my intuition that this verb is from the crossbow-related sense.)

  30. Jake Nelson said,

    August 1, 2011 @ 9:49 am

    I'll also note that a unit of ammunition for a crossbow is referred to as an arrow, bolt, or quarrel roughly equally, but bolt is the usual term for it in flight, and is often used to refer to arrows fired from a bow as well in that sense.

    And while I like the image, Duncan, a crossbowman would more often have his quiver at his hip, not on his back. (It's much shorter than a longbowman's, and a crossbow is loaded differently.)

    Dungeons & Dragons is responsible for far too much of my vocabulary (and trivia), I must say.

  31. Jerry Friedman said,

    August 1, 2011 @ 10:13 am

    @Ellen K.: I misunderstood—I thought you were saying that bolt in blot upright couldn't come from a verb.

    However, I think one could make a case that it is a verb. In I went for a run, the word run has no internal structure, but in I ran breakneck (or break-neck or break neck) the word breakneck does have structure; it's a compound of a verb and a direct object. Whether you read it as a word having an etymology that includes a verb, or as a phrase that can be parsed to contain a verb, or as a compound one of whose bases (the CGEL's term) is a verb, strikes me as a matter of taste, though no doubt grammarians have reasons for their preferences.

    (I switched to breakneck because the noun standfast, which you pointed out, muddies the waters.)

    Likewise in raven-black hair, would you say that raven is not a noun? Or maybe just that it can't be parsed as a noun? Not that it's necessarily the same thing, considering that forming adjectives like raven-black is productive, and forming adjectives or adverbs like breakneck isn't, as far as I know.

    @MYL: I don't understand why you say that if bolt upright means "upright as a bolt", as the OED says, it's irregular. Surely there are many compounds where only one or a few of the possible bases is usual. We usually say or at least write stock-still, not limpet-still (though it exists) or root-still (I'm not searching any more) or even trunk-still or stump-still, with the words that have pretty much replaced stock. We usually say stone-deaf, not post-deaf or adder-deaf, even though deaf as a post and deaf as an adder exist. (Maybe that sentence should be in the past tense.) So I don't see how the rarity or non-existence of column upright is an argument against the similative origin of bolt upright.

  32. Spell Me Jeff said,

    August 1, 2011 @ 10:27 am

    A way-out hypothesis.

    The "t" on the end of "bolt" reminds me (1) that many English pp are/were formed by adding a "t" instead of an "ed" to the stem. And (2) that a few verbs whose stem ends in "t" add nothing to form the pp. Consider the word "cast" as an exemplar of the latter.

    Now I imagine a quasi-dialect or even a confused speaker treating "bolt" as the pp of "bolt." So we get a pair like this:

    The horse bolted for the the gate.
    ?The horse bolt for the gate.

    I don't know if there is evidence of such a construction. But it is suggestive.

    He sat cast out of Heaven.
    He sat bolt[ed] upright.

  33. Spell Me Jeff said,

    August 1, 2011 @ 10:34 am

    Re ^^, on reflection I do see the passive/active problem.

  34. LDavidH said,

    August 1, 2011 @ 12:36 pm

    Here's another, completely different tack on this whole thing: for me as an ESL speaker, it's rather worrying that there are phrases that are common in written fiction but not in spoken English. I have learnt a lot of English from reading fiction, and now I find I am in danger of using non-oral phrases in daily speech, totally unaware that I will end up sounding like Jeeves or David Copperfield…

  35. Ryan Hartwig said,

    August 1, 2011 @ 1:54 pm

    That's fascinating.

    "It turns out that the OED has an entry for "bolt, adv.", where "The n. and stem of the vb. [is] used to qualify adjectives and verbs", because "The n. is used similatively (cf. snow-white adj. and n., sand-blind adj.)"."

    This morning I wanted to use the phrase, "I text invited people to my party", referring to an invite via text. This helped me know the grammar behind the phrase, assuming that it's correct. I'm still not sure if I should include a dash, for it to become "text-invited", or would the dash make it a noun. "There were many attendees who were text-invited.

    Another example is "Publication of extended, full-text invited papers in the proceedings is a distinctive feature of the conference."

    Thanks for the great info! By the way, what does OED stand for?

  36. slobone said,

    August 1, 2011 @ 3:10 pm

    Surely the fact that OED cites examples all the way back to Shakespeare's day suggests that it's what Fowler calls a cast-iron idiom, and therefore not really subject to grammatical deconstruction? Still, it would be interesting to discover how far back it really goes — OED examples don't always include the earliest known usage.

  37. slobone said,

    August 1, 2011 @ 3:24 pm

    Oops, I didn't have to wait long for at least a partial answer to my question: There's at least one example the Canterbury Tales:

    He sholde al nyght
    Haue hire in hise armes bolt vpright (The Shipman's Tale)

    [(myl) The OED also gives

    c1405 (1390) Chaucer Reeve's Tale (Hengwrt) (2003) l. 346, I haue..Swyued the Milleris doghter bolt vp right.

    The entry for "bolt, n1" suggests that lightning bolts, bolts of cloth, locking bolts, and nuts-and-bolts bolts are all related, and all derived from the crossbow bolt.]

    We also have "long as a mast and vpright as a bolt", where bolt is presumably that thing that looks like a screw only with a flat end. Surely that's the most obvious derivation?

  38. slobone said,

    August 1, 2011 @ 3:29 pm

    Or possibly that thing you bolt your door with. At any right it's made of metal and rigid…

  39. Will said,

    August 1, 2011 @ 3:54 pm

    Ryan Hartwig said,

    Thanks for the great info! By the way, what does OED stand for?


    The Oxford English Dictionary (OED) is widely regarded as the accepted authority on the English language. It is an unsurpassed guide to the meaning, history, and pronunciation of 600,000 words— past and present—from across the English-speaking world.

    As a historical dictionary, the OED is very different from those of current English, in which the focus is on present-day meanings. You'll still find these in the OED, but you'll also find the history of individual words, and of the language—traced through 3 million quotations, from classic literature and specialist periodicals to films scripts and cookery books.

  40. Ben Hemmens said,

    August 1, 2011 @ 5:16 pm

    Slobone, very good. So what bolt was Chaucer thinking of?

  41. Chris Waters said,

    August 1, 2011 @ 7:57 pm

    LDavidH: that sort of thing occurs a lot in native speakers as well. It's generally taken as an indication of someone who is well-read, but who comes from a small community. It's almost never taken as a negative, unless you've fallen in with some anti-intellectual hooligans.

  42. slobone said,

    August 1, 2011 @ 10:56 pm

    @Ben Hemmens, not sure, since he's using it metaphorically. Maybe somebody with access to OED can tell us which meaning was the most common in the 14C?

  43. slobone said,

    August 1, 2011 @ 10:59 pm

    Oops, sorry, didn't read the red addition to my earlier comment. So probably it was a crossbow bolt, which was indeed a vertical piece in the crossbow and presumably had to be upright for the thing to work properly.

  44. Jerry Friedman said,

    August 2, 2011 @ 12:21 am

    The OED's earliest citation of bolt for a screw-like fastener isn't till 1626. Unfortunately, it doesn't give a date for the sense of the metal slider that holds a door shut. (I'm going to e-mail them about that.) Even so, I agree that it seems likely that Chaucer's sense of bolt upright was as upright as a crossbow quarrel (or as upright as a quarrel would be if you stood it upright—I'm reminded of a joke about a herring).

  45. Jerry Friedman said,

    August 2, 2011 @ 12:23 am

    Maybe this link to the joke will work.

  46. Sid Smith said,

    August 2, 2011 @ 2:29 am

    "Skittish she was, as is a frisky colt,
    Tall as a mast, and straight as a bolt."

    Anyone who uses "bolting upright", etc, is wrong. The expression means "as upright as a bolt".

  47. Sid Smith said,

    August 2, 2011 @ 2:50 am

    Ooops. Sorry. Finally got around to reading the other contributors.

    I can only add that the crossbow bolt explanation is the one we were given at grammar school in nineteen-mumblety-mumble.

  48. Sid Smith said,

    August 2, 2011 @ 3:23 am

    As a previous contributor has noted, the unmodernised version is even clearer:

    "Wynsynge she was, as is a joly colt, / Long as a mast, and upright as a bolt."

  49. mollymooly said,

    August 2, 2011 @ 4:36 pm

    I suspect the modern "bolt upright" [v.] is a back-formation/zero-derivation/re-analysis from "bolt upright" [adv.] rather than a compsition of "bolt" [v.] + "upright" [adv.]. The Google books examples for "bolted upright" are mostly of two types:
    – 1] a character in bed sits up suddenly, usually having been startled awake.
    – 2] a character springs up out of a sitting position

    Type #1 seems a useful innovation; "sat bolt upright" is what I would have written, but might be ambiguous between stative "sat" and dynamic "sat".
    Type #2 seems just wrong; "bolted up" is what is meant, and "upright" is just interference from a semantically very different expression.

  50. John Crowley said,

    August 3, 2011 @ 2:10 pm

    All the comments trying to attach "bolt" to "upright" seem wrong to me, as anything that bolts does not do so upright or in an upright fashion or direction, with the exception of the lettuce, where the uprightness of the plant is not what's important. (Bolted rhubarb is quite droopy.) I think it remains a mystery. I think the interesting fact that deserves investigation is that those who sit or stand bolt upright can do so from fear, from interest in something (a visitor), from unbending sternness, etc., and they can do it for a long time ("he sat bolt upright for hours" makes sense). None of the suggested comparisons or sources seem to cover all that.

  51. Dale Favier said,

    August 11, 2011 @ 10:13 am

    Over at Language Hat someone mentioned "door-bolts" — which are strong vertical posts that are attached to doors, and sink into holes in the floor to lock them. Quite common still in barns and old farmhouses. It occurs to me that while we moderns may automatically think of the small horizontal bolts we see on doors, these large vertical ones may have been much more common when the idiom was formed. And their only motion is straight up and down.

  52. John Cowan said,

    August 11, 2011 @ 10:26 am

    maidhc: Indeed, sam- and semi- are cognates.

  53. Ø said,

    August 11, 2011 @ 11:34 pm

    For purposes of trying to guess what may be behind the phrase "bolt upright" (which goes at least back to Chaucer), note that the oldest noun senses of the noun bolt, ordered by earliest citation in OED, are as follows:

    1000 crossbow bolt
    1400 bolt that locks a door (@Dale: by sliding horizontally;@Jerry Friedman: sense II.5 in the paper OED that I'm looking at)
    1407 roll of cloth
    1483 fetter (Obs.)
    1535 lightning bolt
    1626 stout metal pin with a head

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