A Slap on the Wrist (Origin)

by Craig Shrives

What Is the Origin of the Saying "A Slap on the Wrist"?

The term "a slap on the wrist" means a mild punishment.

"A slap on the wrist" is mostly used figuratively to suggest a mild reprimand. It contrasts with "a slap in the face," which suggests a harsher punishment. (Of note, to receive "a slap in the face" carries a connotation of the reprimand being unwarranted or unexpected. This is not the case with a "slap on the wrist," which carries a connotation of getting away with a misdemeanour.)
  • John: The CEO said my comment ruined the whole meeting.
  • Anna: Wow, that was a real slap in the face.
  • John: The CEO said my comment ruined the whole meeting. She wants to see me in the morning.
  • Anna: I think you'll get away with a slap on the wrist.
The term "a slap on the wrist" probably derives from the 18th century but only came into regular use in the 20th century (evidence). During the times when the term first emerged, punishments were often severe, and a slap on the wrist would have been considered extremely mild.
A Slap on the Wrist (Origin)

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