(From The Wrecker by Robert Louis Stevenson and Lloyd Osbourne, Chapter XI, published 1892)

Passage 186

His tone was no more gracious than his language; but when Mamie had turned upon him the soft fire of her eyes, and informed him that he was the first sea-captain she had ever met, “except captains of steamers, of course”—she so qualified the statement—and had expressed a lively sense of his courage, and perhaps implied (for I suppose the arts of ladies are the same as those of men) a modest consciousness of his good looks, our bear began insensibly to soften; and it was already part as an apology, though still with unaffected heat of temper, that he volunteered some sketch of his annoyances.

“A pretty mess we've had!” said he. “Half the stores were wrong; I'll wring John Smith's neck for him some of these days. Then two newspaper beasts came down, and tried to raise copy out of me, till I threatened them with the first thing handy; and then some kind of missionary bug, wanting to work his passage to Raiatea or somewhere. I told him I would take him off the wharf with the butt end of my boot, and he went away cursing. This vessel's been depreciated by the look of him.”

While the captain spoke, with his strange, humorous, arrogant abruptness, I observed Jim to be sizing him up, like a thing at once quaint and familiar, and with a scrutiny that was both curious and knowing.

"For" can't mean in order to help him, it can't mean how difficult, necessary, pleasant, etc. something is that someone might do, etc. So, what's meant by "I'll wring his neck for him"? Is this colloquial usage or slang?

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    It doesn't really mean anything, since it makes no real difference to the meaning whether for him is present or not. Arguably it's a kind of "intensifier", strengthening the implication that Smith himself is the cause of the punishment the speaker threatens. Purely a guess, but it may be related to the long-established slang exclamation / threat I'll swing for him! (I'll murder him, even if I hang for it). Commented Oct 9, 2023 at 10:26
  • He'll get what's coming to him, He'll get what he deserves,... Punishment is often presented as given to a victim, and sometimes it's "for" him (cf This beating is for your own good). Commented Oct 9, 2023 at 11:24
  • @FumbleFingers - people might well say (or they did when I was young) - I'll break his nose for him! Commented Oct 9, 2023 at 13:32
  • @MichaelHarvey: I'm sure plenty of people still say I'll give you what for! Analyze that! Commented Oct 9, 2023 at 13:36

1 Answer 1


In this context, "for him" does have the meaning "in order to help him", but the intent is ironic, since we assume John Smith isn't hoping someone will wring his neck for him, and wouldn't consider it a favour.

Imagine two men who are about to fight, and one says, "How about I break your arm for you? Would you like that?"

The irony is clear. It's the same in your quote.

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