How Old is the Phrase ‘Lock In’?

Pub window with 'Saloon Bar' and drawn curtains.

The Oxford English Dictionary research team is asking for help identifying the origins of the phrase ‘lock in’ in relation to pubs.

The earliest verifiable usage they’ve found is from as recently as 1991, which they’re sure can’t be right:

The elder members of the OED’s staff know from personal experience that this practice existed before 1991, but we have been unable to find earlier verifiable evidence of this term for it. Can you help us find earlier evidence of lock-in referring to a period after closing time in a bar or pub when customers already inside are allowed to continue drinking?

(Via @JamesBSumner, via @WilliamHaydock.)

Our instincts are that it must be much older — post-WWII, probably — and so we got out some books and logged into a few newspaper and magazine archives to nose around.

Online, once we’d worked out how to filter out references to people called Lock, and Enfield Lock, and lock picking, and so on, we found… nothing.

Nor did we find anything in hard copy books — pub guides, Michael Jackson, publicans’ memoirs — from the 1930s through to the 1980s.

There are various convoluted ways of referring to what is obviously a lock in along the lines of ‘the licensee closed the door and invited certain guests to remain for a “private party” with the curtains drawn’, but the phrase ‘lock in’ is not used.

When we found this clip from 1986 we thought we’d got something:

…but they don’t actually say ‘lock in’ in the sketch — it’s referred to as ‘an after hours session’.

We’re currently reading through every single issue of the London Drinker from the 1980s (as you’ll have noticed if you follow us on Twitter…) and compiling an index as we go. We reckon if ‘lock in’ is going to turn up anywhere, it will be in a publication with an informal tone aimed at serious pub-going drinkers, but, so far (we’re up to 1981) it hasn’t shown up.

We’ll keep looking but if you happen to know of a documented usage of the term, please let the OED team know, and/or comment below.

13 thoughts on “How Old is the Phrase ‘Lock In’?”

  1. Just had a trawl through the Irish Times archive. It gets used in the 1960s and ’70s in relation to industrial and student protests, with no implication that there’s another possible meaning. In the ’80s and ’90s it mostly appears in the financial pages.

  2. It’s funny how these phrases that seem like part of the furniture often actually don’t go back anywhere near as far as we think. In the past I would have tended to call it “AT’s”.

    It’s often suggested that, in early Good Beer Guides, the description “keen licensee” was an indication of a willingness to serve after hours.

    1. People tend to think that if they can’t remember when something started then it must have been going on for centuries.

      It’s one of the reasons we keep harping on about how Robbie Pickering coined ‘London murky’ — because it’s a rare case where we *can* pinpoint the exact moment of origin and don’t want it to get lost.

      1. Try being a folkie! Everything’s bloody ancient, and half the ancient things are pagan – and if they’re not pagan they’re full of meaningful symbolism. Mostly nonsense, of course. Take Scarborough Fair – the song it derives from is one of the oldest folk songs we know, & it’s basically an elaborate dirty joke.

  3. It gets used in the Levellers’ ‘Fifteen Years’ – which is about serious drinkers.

    “It’s too late to turn around and find another way
    All the lights in the late night lock-in
    Fade away when he gets in”

    This was released in 1991, (according to Wiki, which seems about right) and presumably must have been a well-used phrase to make it into a song. I certainly seem to recall hearing the phrase ‘lock-in’ from my early days as drinker, in the late 80s.

    My dad always calls it ‘after hours’.

  4. I don’t remember ‘lock in’ from the 70s, when I began going to the pub; the term we used was ‘stay behind’. When Gail, license of my local, tells me to drink up, I occasionally say “It’s okay, I’m waiting for the stay behind.” It always winds her up, even though she knows I’m joking.

  5. Here’s a mad idea: the phrase ‘lock-in’ is a staple of The Crystal Maze, which first began broadcasting in… February 1990. Is it possible that the ‘after hours’ use of the phrase actually borrowed it from there?

  6. no, it will almost certainly have been a regional variation phrase to begin with, so the fact someone in Manchester calls it “after hours” or someone in London says it was “stay behind” or whatever, doesnt mean anything other than they used different words because they are from different parts of the country and their approach to the 11pm cut off was different.

    I remember before the licensing laws changed most pubs in Nottingham as long as you were in the pub before 11, you just carried on drinking, it wasnt a lock in as such,it was just no-one else was allowed to come in. Whilst in London I remember visiting a pub in Whitechapel past 11pm, where you had to knock on the door and be with someone the bar staff recognised, and then it was just “after hours” drinking.

    whereas locally I was participating in lock ins in the early 90s and I certainly didnt invent the phrase, and they certainly werent advertised, so I dont think checking documents from London will turn up anything because licensing laws werent interpreted that strictly in London, you need to find an area where 11pm was seen as the only cutoff time and to go beyond was an exception just for the regulars in the know

Comments are closed.