WHEN a man was jailed last week for installing cameras in a family's home and secretly filming them, one of the victims was "gutted" that the sentence was only six months. In other words, he was bitterly disappointed, even devastated. He felt, perhaps, as if his guts had been ripped out.

At the heart of the modern usage is the idea of the guts being the most essential part of something - one gets to the guts of the issue, or one hates one's enemy's guts. Its origins lie in the Old English geotan, later guttas, which is thought to go back to guttu, via the pre-Teutonic ghudnu, Gothic giutan, Old High German giozzan and ultimately to the prehistoric Indo-European ghu - to pour, with the underlying meaning of "tube through which digested food flows".

So in the original sense - still the principal literal meaning - "gut" signified the contents of the abdominal cavity, and later, by extension, the act of removing them, as all fishermen know. It was then applied to buildings being turned into an empty shell by fire or cleaned out by thieves. "Guts" for vigour or courage appeared in the 19th century, while two antiquated uses suggest a link with the present "gutted": in Burton's Diary in 1658: "They said our guts should be about our ears if we do not vote it", and in 1663 in Hudinbras, Samuel Butler wrote "It griev'd him to the guts that they ... should offer such inhuman wrong". The current figurative sense is thought to derive from old prison slang, meaning roughly "sick to my guts", though it was also 19th century underworld argot for "penniless".

It was possibly a footballer - and maybe one who had done time - who gave us the modern sense of the word, given that it began to appear in written form in the tabloid newspapers of the mid-1980s - around the same time as "over the moon" and "sick as a parrot" were gaining currency. Once established, "gutted" took off to become the kind of word politicians use when they want to establish their street credentials. And it retains that visceral feel that conveys so much more than mere disappointment, however severe.

Chris Maume

Nicholas Bagnall returns next week