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What Does It Mean to Be "in the Dock"?

By Matt Hubbard
Updated May 23, 2024
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The phrase “in the dock” is an idiomatic expression that means someone or something is being subjected to examination or trial. It is a British expression, more commonly used in the United Kingdom than in the United States. The origin of the phrase is rooted in the traditional layout of the English courtroom.

In the United States, the defendant and his or her legal counsel sit at a table across from the judge and to one side of the plaintiff or prosecutor. This is part of American tradition, intended to show the two sides as symbolically equal before the eyes of the law and to allow the defendant to see the witnesses against him or her. In Britain, however, the defendant sits in an enclosed area on the opposite side of the judge from the witness stand. This enclosed area, symbolically keeping the defendant in custody during the trial, is known as the dock, possibly stemming from the obsolete Flemish word docke meaning "cage." The defendant in an English criminal trial is therefore physically and literally in the dock.

From this literal basis, the expression "in the dock" has broadened in its usage to include situations metaphorically similar to being a defendant in a criminal trial. A company being audited by the government for a suspected business misdealing, a husband attempting to convince his wife that he has been faithful, or a new drug being considered for approval by Britain’s Medicines and Healthcare Regulatory Agency (MHRA) could all be metaphorically described as being in the dock.

The phrase “in the dock” is also an excellent example of the confusing difference between idiom and metaphor. An idiom is generally defined as an expression in which the meaning as a whole cannot be derived from the meanings of its component words, such as in “I’m down with that,” meaning “I agree.” A metaphor is a comparison in which one item is said to be another very different item in order to suggest a likeness, such as “That lawyer is a real shark.” Technically, the phrase “in the dock” is more a metaphor than idiom, suggesting someone’s situation is equivalent to that of a defendant on trial. For the American English speaker, who is likely unfamiliar with the courtroom definition of the word "dock," the phrase truly is an idiom in which the meaning seems unconnected to the meanings of its component words.

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Discussion Comments

By ysmina — On Jul 29, 2012

I thought that the enclosed area was called a dock because of maritime law. Isn't the law of the courtroom in both the US and the UK considered maritime law?

I think it is. In addition, UK is a maritime nation so the courtroom is under admiralty jurisdiction (basically the law of the sea). They compared the defendant to a "vessel" and to the place he stands as the "dock" and that's where "in the dock" came from.

It sounds kind of funny, but it's true!

By donasmrs — On Jul 29, 2012

Actually, I've heard this phrase being used in American courts too. Of course there is no actual enclosure like in the British courts. But the idiom must have been borrowed from British English and is used in American trials as well.

In the other sense, I've heard the idiom used when something is being debated. Sort of like when the defendant is being cross-examined in court. For example, there was an article in the paper last week about scientists debating a theory and they said that the theory was "in the dock."

By ZipLine — On Jul 28, 2012

I'm not too familiar with this idiom, naturally, as I haven't lived in the UK.

I was still able to guess the meaning of it but I thought that "dock" was referring to a ship dock, and not a cage. That makes sense too because a dock is between two piers and the ship can unload what it's carrying. The defendant while on trial is not yet proven guilty or innocent, so in that sense, he or she is between the piers too.

But I guess a cage makes even more sense because the defendant is under custody and is being suspected of having committed a crime.

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