etymology - What is the origin of "like a bat out of hell"?

  • Rodrigo Guedes

    As far as I know, this expression means to appear suddenly and in a scary way. But what is its origin? I heard that it comes from Meat Loaf's song but I'd like to confirm it with reliable sources, if possible.

  • Answers
  • Hugo

    The OED has this phrase meaning to "(to go) very quickly" from 1921:

    1921 J. Dos Passos Three Soldiers (1922) ii. ii. 67 We went like a bat out of hell along a good state road.

    However, I found some antedatings.

    First, from August 17, 1895 in the Evening Star (Washington DC, Page 15, Image 15), in an article titled "COWBOYS AT WORK / Hamlin Harland Gives His Impression of a Round-Up. / THE CRUELTY OF BRANDING / Some Stirring Encounters Between Man and Beast. / WITH THE COW BOSS":

    The branding was soon over and then the camp began to move. The next round up lay over a formidable ridge, and as I rode behind the troupe with the boss, I saw a characteristic scene. Toiling up the terrible grade, one horse on the cook's wagon gave out, and four of the cowboys hitched their lariats to the pole and jerked the wagon up the gulch "like a bat out o' hell," as one man graphically put it. In this way do these men dominate all conditions.

    Placing the quotation on the map, the report itself is from "SALEDA, August 4, 1895" and begins "At Cripple Creek mining camp...". There's both a Salida (note spelling) and Cripple Creek in the state of Colorado, just 50 miles from each other as the bat flies.

    Next, two antedatings via the American Dialect Society mailing list. From Stephen Goranson:

    The Lions of the Lord: A Tale of the Old West By Harry Leon Wilson, Copyright 1903, published June, 1903, page 107 (google book full view):

    Why, I tell you, young man, if I knew any places where the pinches was at, you'd see me comin' the other way like a bat out of hell.

    From Fred Shapiro:

    1906 The Cosmopolitan May [article beginning on page 81] (American Periodical Series) A peon shot back the bolt of the bull-pen door and in poured the bull like a bat out of hell.

    Finally, Dialect Notes (Volume III, Part V, 1909) is good as it gives a descriptive reason for the phrase:

    **"like a bat out of hell,** *adv. phr.* Very quickly. "Once all the bats were confined in Hell. They still have wings like the Devil. One day some one left the gate open and they quickly darted out and escaped to earth."

  • Kristina Lopez

    Actually, it means to run away from something with great speed and recklessness. Searching for the etymology of this expression has lead me back to the late 19th century/early 20th century and appears in the southern US states initially.

    An early book on dialect, called Dialect Notes, Volume 5, 1918, issued by the American Dialect Society, includes the phrase, its meaning and locale:

    Dialect Notes Volume 5

    I was surprised that there are no biblical references (that I could find) to this expression.


    "Swiftly" is the word used in most historical references I found online. The notion of wrecklessness has been implied in my own experience hearing and using the expression.

  • Cat812

    This concept is mentioned in the comedy play The Birds (Greek: Ὄρνιθες Ornithes) by Aristophanes, first performed in 414 BC. Chaerephon, a loyal disciple of Socrates, is a bat from hell in this play (lines 1296 and 1564):

    CHORUS "Near by the land of the Sciapodes there is a marsh, from the borders whereof the odious Socrates evokes the souls of men. Pisander came one day to see his soul, which he had left there when still alive. He offered a little victim, a camel, slit his throat and, following the example of Ulysses, stepped one pace backwards. Then that bat of a Chaerephon came up from hell to drink the camel's blood. "

    More info about the play here:

  • Related Question

    etymology - What is the origin of the phrase "turns out"?
  • Sam

    What is the origin of "turns out" as it appears in the phrases below:

    • It turns out
    • As it turns out
    • Let me know how it turns out

    What is turning, what is coming out, and from where?

    I can't find anything on the phrase, but my guess is something either food related, e.g. meat grinding, or perhaps something to do with film projectors (although I suspect the phrase is older than film).

  • Related Answers
  • Todd Hopkinson

    "How it turns out" is also often phrased in the form of, "tell me how it went". "turn" and "went" are directly related, as "went" comes from an old word "wend", which means "turn".

    Isn't that interesting? When you ask how something went, you are literally asking how something "turned" out.

    Went is the past tense of go. Turn represents just that, rotation or revolution, a thing going.

  • teylyn

    Idiomatic phrases like "turn out" just cannot be taken literally, word for word. Over the course of time, the literal meaning has evolved into another layer of meaning that is no longer represented by the interpretation of the individual words in a verbatim phrase.

    That is what idoms are: there is a difference between the word-for-word meaning and the meaning of the phrase as a whole. Open any idiomatic phrase dictionary for thousands more examples. As another example, "How are you doing?" has nothing to do with actually "doing" anything either. And if you were doing something, the grammatically correct question should be either "What are you doing?" or "How are you doing this?" But since it is an idiomatic phrase, it just means that somebody enquires after your well-being.

    Each idiomatic phrase has its own history, and each will now mean more than the logical sum of their words.

    Somewhere in the past, "turn out" probably had something to do with actually "turning" something, or things "going" somewhere, as icnivad has described so well in the previous post.

    I can still sense an element of something changing from one state to another state in the phrase "turn out", but to me it is one of many set phrases, with a distinct meaning of its own that cannot be completely deciphered by interpreting the individual words of the phrase.

    As a non-native speaker of English, I need to rely on a dictionary that tells me what "turn out" means, compared to the individual meanings of "turn" and "out".

  • Chris Shore

    A baker turns out a cake (or similar) onto a tray from the baking tin after baking in order to cool. The tin is turned and the cake comes out. This is critical moment - a point of assessment for the baker, and so the cake turns out well or badly. Whether this is the origin of the verb I don't know, but it's the most literal and least idiomatic use I can think of, and I'm not even a cook!

  • MετάEd

    Although I have no definitive answer here, I have an informed one. "Turn out" may come from the metaphor of "destiny or identity is a direction".

    The idea of metaphors ruling our thinking and language is proposed by George Lakoff and Mark Turner, particularly in books like Metaphors We Live By and More Than Cool Reason. They present the idea that most figures of speech are based in a metaphorical understanding of the world, metaphors like "life is a journey" (so we use figures of speech such as, "We've come so far", "this is a milestone", "on the road to wealth", etc.).

    I would think one metaphor is destiny and therefore identity is direction. Here, to "turn" means to literally change direction, like a compass pointer, and therefore metaphorically to change destiny or identity (of a person or a situation). So if a battle "turns", it changes its destiny. When someone "turns religious", they change their identity or destiny. When milk "turns", it changes its identity for the worse.

    When we ask, "How did it turn out?" I think we are calling on this metaphor to say, "What was the identity or destiny of the situation at the end?". If things "turned out well" then they were good; etc. The "out" part may be an additional metaphor that says "out means revealed, in means concealed". So "turned out" means the direction/destiny was revealed.

    Notice we also call on this identity or destiny is a direction when we say "how did things wind up?" (wind as in winding road, that is, direction).

  • Unreason

    Etymonline does not mention exact phrase 'to turn out', but there is a short and simple entry for turnout

    "audience," 1816

    Macmillan lists the following, related meanings for the word turnout:

    • the number of people who come to an event
    • the number of voters in an election

    Obviously, it would be hard to imagine that the word turnout was established before or independently of the phrase turn out.

    However, it is possible to imagine that, similarly to nautical origin of 'turn in' - go to bed, there was a theatrical context in which the adverb out was added to the word. Once established as attendance or audience of a play, which is a result, the meaning could have been applied to any result of any event, even for small and personal events.

    The above is a hypothesis, what follow is wild speculation:

    Thinking about some translations of the phrases such as 'It turns out' to other languages, I came to a possible explanation why word out was chosen - the result of the show can be best measured by two things:

    • the mood of people leaving the theater
    • the number of people leaving the theater at the end of the show (and not before)

    Both facts are established while people are going out of the theater - hence the word out and it seems compatible with history of meanings. Here's a fictional dialog - Q: "How was the audience last night?" A: "When they turned up they were many but when they turned out, there were few and looked bored."

    Another explanation might be that the word was established during outdoor theater performances and hence the out.

  • Sony Santos

    This is not an official answer, but the way I see that term.

    I imagine a problem like a "black box" -a closed box-, which we need to open (solve).

    When we finally open the box, the solution "is turned out" of it, "coming out". I have similar thinkings on "discover", "reveal", etc.