‘glutton for punishment’: meaning and origin

The phrase glutton for punishment designates a person who seems eager to take on difficult or unpleasant tasks.

This phrase occurs, for example, in an interview of Ed Miliband * by Rachel Cooke, published in The Observer (London, England) of Sunday 13th March 2022:

His reasons for deciding first to stay in parliament, and then to serve in Keir Starmer’s shadow cabinet, are straightforward. “If I get to be climate change secretary in the next Labour government, there’s nothing bigger than that,” he says. But don’t most people still look at him and wonder why he isn’t despondent, worn out? What a glutton for punishment. Most ex-leaders scarper, pronto. “Yes, it’s interesting. It is unusual-ish, though [William] Hague stayed.” Miliband knew “immediately” that he would.

[* The British Labour politician Edward Miliband (born 1969) has been Shadow Secretary of State for Climate Change and Net Zero since 2021. He was Leader of the Labour Party and Leader of the Opposition from September 2010 to May 2015.]

Since the early 18th century, the noun glutton has been used figuratively to designate a person with a remarkably great desire or capacity for something. The following, for example, is from The British Enchanters: Or, No Magick like Love (London: Printed for Jacob Tonson, 1706), a tragedy by the English politician and author George Granville (1666-1735):

The Haughty Arcabon, of Ardan’s Blood,
And Arcaläus, Foes alike to Good,
Gluttons in Murder, wanton to destroy,
As impiously their fatal Arts employ.

The phrase glutton for punishment originated in pugilistic slang in the early 19th century. The notion occurs in the following two texts:

1-: In On the modern Improvements and Refinements in the English Language, by N. Slone, published in The European Magazine, and London Review (London, England) of January 1809:

A turtle-eating alderman, and a black-guard prize-fighter that can stand a sound beating, are now both recognised by one expressive word. I suppose this refinement had its origin with that junta of our worthy peers who, though no great heroes themselves, feel an infinite deal of pleasure in beholding and rewarding the skill of their protegés [sic] in the pugilistic exhibitions of Wormwood Scrubs and Sir John Seabright’s park. The term glutton, whether at a fight or at a feast, is now indiscriminately applied to every man of true bottom.

2-: In Tom Crib’s Memorial to Congress. With a Preface, Notes, and Appendix. By One of the Fancy (London: Longman, Hurst, Rees, Orme, and Brown, 1819), by the Irish poet, satirist, composer and political propagandist Thomas Moore (1779-1852):

Chap. 5. notices some curious points of similarity between the ancient and modern Fancy—Thus, Theocritus, in his Milling-match, calls Amycus “a glutton,” which is well known to be the classical phrase at Moulsey-Hurst, for one who, like Amycus, takes a deal of punishment before he is satisfied.

The earliest occurrences of the phrase glutton for punishment, and variants, that I have found are as follows, in chronological order:

1-: From the Nottingham Journal (Nottingham, Nottinghamshire, England) of Saturday 14th March 1829:

NEWARK ELECTION.

On Friday last, at noon, the poll was closed by consent of all parties, the numbers then being—
For Mr. Sadler, ……………….. 801
Serjeant Wilde, ………………. 587
Majority, ……………………….. —214
Whereupon Mr. Sadler was declared duly elected.
A correspondent in noticing the close of this interesting election, offers the following observations:—
1. The Pro-Catholic papers, disappointed in their hopes of the return, now congratulate themselves that Mr. Sadler has succeeded only by “a bare majority.” These good folks must certainly be what the pugilists call “gluttons in punishment,” if the small number of 214 is called a bare majority.

2-: From The Satirist or, the Censor of the Times (London, England) of Sunday 27th October 1839:

The people whom the Whigs pretend to lead, have been beaten upon the Ballot, beaten upon the Corn-laws, beaten upon the Suffrage question, beaten upon the Poor-law, beaten upon every question connected with Ireland, and beaten, for it was a defeat, upon the Education question.
Surely this is beating enough to satisfy the greatest glutton for punishment that ever threw his hat into a prize-ring.

3-: From the account of a vote in the House of Lords, published in The Morning Herald (London, England) of Friday 28th February 1840:

The defeat of last night constitutes the third defeat which the Queen’s high-minded Ministers have already sustained in the present session. “We have shown fight,” exclaimed Lord Morpeth. “Yes,” rejoined Sir James Graham, “and you have shown yourselves gluttons of punishment.”

4-: From a letter to the Editor, in which one Clement Roice reacted to “the last effusion of the “Naval Officer””, published in The Wexford Independent (Wexford, County Wexford, Ireland) of Saturday 18th February 1843:

I am half disposed to leave him now to write a “quiet letter,” but he is such a perfect glutton at punishment, that I will take a little farther notice of his reckless and unmeaning assertions.

5-: From the Brighton Gazette and Lewes Observer (Brighton, Sussex, England) of Thursday 4th July 1844:

We hope that none of our readers will fail to peruse the speech of the Duke of Richmond, in reply to Lord Radnor, on Tuesday. It is perfectly inconceivable that the noble earl should persevere in drawing down upon himself such repeated and severe castigations. He must be gluttonously fond of punishment.

6-: From the transcript of a speech delivered by Alderman William Mathews during a meeting of the leading Conservatives of Birmingham, published in The Birmingham Journal (Birmingham, Warwickshire, England) of Saturday 13th July 1844:

Mr. Spooner had not been hitherto fortunate in his endeavours to get into Parliament; and he appeared before them that day as the best beaten man in England—(laughter)—and the very fact of his again presenting himself before the electors showed that he was not only a good man at a fight, but a very glutton at punishment. (Laughter, and cheers.)

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