Just in the Nick of Time: A History of Interesting Idioms and Colloquial Phrases – Part 5

We have reached the halfway point in our ten part series where we investigate the history behind some of the most interesting idioms and those clever colloquial phrases that we all use but never take the time to find out what they really mean. Some of my favorites from the series so far have been “Mad as a Hatter” (from Part 1), “Down in the Dumps” (from Part 2), “Cat got your Tongue” (from Part 3), and “Quitting Cold Turkey” (from Part 4). Today’s six idioms/phrases will have a central theme. Today we will discuss: “Go the whole nine yards“, “Raining cats and dogs“, “Face the Music“, “Madder than a wet sitting hen“, “Now you’re cooking with Peanut Oil“, and “What in tarnation“.



 

“Go the whole nine yards” – 

Origin: What should have been one of the easiest ones to answer, the colloquial American phrase “go the whole nine yards” has been described by Yale’s librarian Fred Shapiro as “the most prominent etymological riddle of our time”. The most commonly offered explanation for the phrase was that the gun belts used on aircraft machine guns were nine yards long; thusly why someone would say ‘give them the whole nine yards’. Sadly the phrase predates World War II and the standard belt for guns used in World War I was ‘seven yards’. Another explanation is that it is a unit of fabric measurement because skeins of fabric were routinely sold in lengths of nine (or some other multiple of three yards). In an article in the New Albany Daily Ledger in Indiana, an article called “The Judge’s Big Shirt” uses the phrase to describe a woman making three shirts; instead of three “she has put the whole nine yards into one shirt!” This phrase was used for the next 7 years in that same newspaper. Whether this or the measurement of the unfurled square-rigged sails of full-rigged sailing ships…no one knows.

Meaning: Everything, the whole lot; or when used as an adjective, “all the way”.



“Raining Cats and Dogs” – 

Origin: There is no definitive origin for the phrase “it’s raining cats and dogs” but just because the precise origin is not known….doesn’t mean that we can’t speculate. The phrase’s origin can definitely be traced to the 17th century, and we definitely know that there has never been any reports of cats and dogs falling from the sky during a storm (despite the occasional frog or fish that has been swept up into a cyclone and thusly brought back down to earth during the storm). More than likely the source of the saying is in dead animals and other debris being washed up into the streets after a heavy rain. Another proposed story could be cats being seen falling past a window after slipping off of a roof during a heavy rain storm. Either of these scenarios could be a grand possibility but there is no definitive way of knowing. Either way its a fun phrase in which we can also have fun speculating the origin.

Meaning: Heavy falling rainstorm.



“Face the Music” – 

Origin: With imagery so concise, you would think that there would be a definitive answer as to what the origin of the phrase “Face the Music” would be, but alas there is not. There are three equally interesting, plausible possibilities that could definitely be within the realm of possibility. The first possibility is that the phrase is based on a tradition of disgraced officers being ‘drummed out’ of their regiment. This would be a ceremony where the drummers would play while the officer was stripped of his title and then he would have to ‘face the music’ as he walked away. The second theory is that it was a theatrical term that meant that actors who were asked to ‘face the music’, were asked to quite literally face the orchestra pit while on stage. The third and slightly more interesting theory is that while during a performance

Meaning: Face the consequences of your action’s.



“Madder than a wet sitting hen”

Origin: If you or your grandma is from the Southeastern part of the United States then you’ve probably heard her or someone else say “I’m madder than a wet sitting hen”. Though there is no exact origin or written proof, the complex metaphor that describes someone who is raging mad is said to have originated in the Appalachian mountains. This phrase derived from the fact that hen’s become quite agitated if and when they get wet. I’m not sure how long it took someone to come to that conclusion but I would hate to be on the receiving end of that upset chicken.

Meaning: Phrase used to express the intensity of someone’s anger.



“Now you’re cooking with peanut oil” – 

Origin: An idiom that has since been made popular by the Duck Dynasty Robertson family patriarch; but the phrase has been around in one form or another, for many years. In the American South, the phrase has taken many forms: “Now we’re cooking with gas”, “now we’re cooking with Crisco”, and many others but the phrase’s definite origin is not necessary a definitely one. The only thing that we know is that the phrase works due to the high smoke point of peanut oil and is used in higher temperature cooking.

Meaning: A colloquial way of showing approval.



“What in Tarnation?” – 

Origin: This idiom, like the central theme of all of these idioms from this post, do not have definite origins. As for United States ‘Southerners’ this specific saying has been around for as long as they can remember. The term ‘tarnation’ originated in the late 1700s as a euphemism for the less offensive ‘damnation’. In the 1700s, the phrase “what in tarnation” would have been something similar to a slightly offensive phrase used currently: ‘what the hell?’. So whether its to replace ‘damnation’ or ‘plainly asking ‘what in the place where you are damned’….either way, I’d rather not visit Tarnation.

Meaning: An idiom used as a rhetorical question that literally means ‘what in damnation?’.



 

Featured Image: Textile Market in Karachi, Pakistan image by and accredited to Steve Evans from Bangalore, India – Flickr, CC BY 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=394539

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