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I have read the following sentence in Diary of a Wimpy Kid 3:

I end up getting a bar of soap in my mouth for knowing how to spell a bad word , and Rodrick got off scot-free.

What does " getting a bar of soap in my mouth " mean ? This boy can't be gotten a bar of soap in his mouth, right ? It sounds like a physical punishment . Or is it an idiom?

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Yes, that's right: it's a form of physical punishment. There are two aspects to it:

  1. A verbal transgression such as lying or swearing makes the mouth (metaphorically) dirty. Soap (metaphorically) cleans it out.
  2. Metaphor aside, it's rather unpleasant, so it's an effective punishment.

This sort of punishment isn't very common anymore, but people often refer to it in speech. One cliché response to profanity is "I ought to wash your mouth out with soap!" And we also say people have "dirty mouths" when they use profanity.

This punishment was and is real, though. He really could have gotten a bar of soap in his mouth as punishment.

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It seems it indeed is a physical punishment as mentioned here:

Washing out mouth with soap is a form of physical punishment that consists in placing soap, or a similar cleansing agent, inside a person's mouth so that the person will taste it, inducing what most people consider an unpleasant experience. One method uses a bar of soap which is placed in a person's mouth; the person can then be forced to hold it for a period of time and/or swallow it. ...

This practice seems to be very old and is related to cleansing someone's bad speech behavior like uttering a profanity, etc.

But going by its impractical approach, it seems it can be used as an idiom when someone gets some sort of an impractical punishment.

  • +1 for the Wikipedia link (which, it turns out, says pretty much everything my answer does). – snailcar Oct 16 '13 at 11:06
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    I’ve never heard the phrase used to refer to an impractical punishment. It’s just used to describe being punished for lying or profanity (or other verbal transgressions), either literally or figuratively (i.e. any punishment for such verbal transgressions could be figuratively described as having one’s mouth washed out with soap, even if the actual punishment takes on an entirely different form – being “grounded” seems to be the most common punishment today, at least in America). – KRyan Oct 16 '13 at 16:56

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