Its origins are a little obscure. Partridge notes several slang and underworld uses for the term, none of which gives an entirely clear derivation. "No bottle" could be used to mean "no good" or "useless" in the early part of this century, but that dismissive sense doesn't quite square with its on-pitch meaning, where it refers to a very specific disability - the disappearance of confrontational bravery or nerve. A player might possess every physical skill required, but if he lacks bottle, he will be unable to deploy them when things get rough. A more likely etymology is to be found in its use as rhyming slang for "arse" (bottle and glass), a meaning that suggests a colloquially honoured connection between courage and control of the sphincter muscles. To lose your bottle may just be a marginally more decorous version of "bricking it". These are murky waters, though - in prison slang, to be "at the bottle" or a "bottle-merchant" is to be a predatory homosexual, so there is perhaps some dim memory of sexual submission in the term.
It seems most likely that it is a verbal pitch invasion - making its way into footballing talk from the terraces of the Seventies, as the game itself becomes more physically aggressive and less gentlemanly. There is no suggestion anywhere, incidentally, that it has any connection with the idea of Dutch courage or alcoholic valour, though in that sense the England team might be said to have too much "bottle" altogether.
Thomas SutcliffeReuse content