Just in the Nick of Time: A History of Interesting Idioms and Colloquial Phrases – Part 7

Sometimes the idioms or colloquial phrases that we use in our every day language sound completely ludicrous, but much to our surprise they have very real and amazingly explainable origins. Today we will look into origins and meanings of some of the silliest sounding idioms and colloquial phrases that have pretty unbelievable origins. Today we will look at: Cry crocodile tears, Grandfathered in, What in tarnation, Blowing smoke up your a**, Brand spanking new, and Throwing a hissy fit. 



Tears_of_a_crocodile.jpg

Cry crocodile tears” – 

Origin: There is an ancient myth that alludes to crocodiles crying while they devour their prey. This allusion is partially due to the fact that the crocodile has a lachrymal gland which produces ‘tears’ that lubricates their eyes just like humans do. The animal does not however show remorse while it is devouring a deer or even a human…so they do not cry as a result of an emotion. There have been stories about this crying myth for many centuries but the first printed references to this myth is found in French reports as far back as 1230. In The Voyage and Travail of Sir John Maundeville, (circa 1400) the writer says that “…there are many crocodiles – these serpents slay men, and then, weeping, eat them…). This is a direct reference to the myth but in the 16th century; Edmund Grindal, the Archbishop of York and Canterbury, used the phrase as it commonly used by saying that: “I begin to fear, lest his humility…be a counterfit humility, and his tears crocodile tears.” So it would appear that the scientific realization that the tears of a crocodile are insincere and thus the phrase made its way across the ocean and has continued on throughout the years.

Meaning: Putting on an insincere show of sorrow.



Grandfathered in” – 

Origin: In the Southern states of the United States, the term ‘grandfathered in’ is used frequently, but if they were to have used it in the late 1800s…it would have had a completely different meaning. The dictionary states that a grandfather clause is ‘a portion of a statute that provides that the law is not applicable in certain circumstances due to preexisting facts’ and the specific grandfather clauses which popularized this phrase were the use of clauses that were originally intended to prevent Blacks from voting. These provisions were adopted by the constitutions of some states and were sought to interfere with an individual’s right to vote by setting forth difficult requirements. The common requirements were ownership of a large amount of land or the ability to read and write portions of the state and/or federal constitutions. The name grandfather clause arose from the exception that was made for veterans of the Civil War. If the veterans were qualified to vote prior to 1866, their descendants were also qualified. This literally, in effect, mean that if a person’s grandfather could vote…then so could they. This of course was created to benefit white Americans and to keep black Americans from voting. Thankfully this was found to be unconstitutional later and Despite the extremely negative past, the phrase has continues to be heard (specifically when your cell phone company wants to tell you about some program that you were grandfathered into).

Meaning: a clause exempting certain classes of people or things from the requirements of a piece of legislation affecting their previous rights, privileges, or practices.


What in tarnation?” – 

Origin: “What in tarnation” was one of those colloquial sayings that was even too country for my family. The euphemistic expression gained popularity in the 18th and 19th century throughout America as a replacement certain four letter explanations which would offend the Puritan ears of that time period. The phrase is similar to the “what in Sam Hill” which strangely enough was NOT named after a guy named Sam Hill. While we do not really know who in the Sam Hill that Sam Hill was or why that saying gained popularity; we do know that ‘tarnation’ is a euphemism that is a modification of the word ‘darn’ation which is a cleaned up version of the word ‘damnation’. The root of the word ‘tarnation’ is a derivative of the word ‘tarnal’ which means ‘eternal’. So…how would the religious invocation of ‘eternity’ be used as a curse? At some point, someone in a moment of high emotion took the word tarnal and joined it together with damnation to say ‘you eternal enemy’. Maybe? Sounds logical to me.

Meaning: Euphemism for the word ‘damnation’.


Tobacco_smoke_enema_device

 “Blowing smoke up your a**” – 

Origin: You’re probably hoping that this figure of speech is not based on anything but I hate to break it to you; its based on a real thing. The figure of speech, which now a days mostly means that you are a insincerely complimenting someone in order to ‘inflate’ the ego of the person being flattered; but back in the 1700s, doctors would quite literally blow smoke up your butt. Believe it or not, it was a regular medical procedure that was used, among many things, to resuscitate people who were otherwise presumed to be dead. It was in fact such a commonly used procedure for drowning victims that ‘smoke blowing equipment’ hung along the River Thames. This equipment was donated so kindly by the Royal Humane Society. Yeah let that sink in. SO….people would keep the ‘smoke blowing equipment’ near swimming holes, much like we keep defibrillators at gyms, hospitals, etc. So….how did it work? Well I’m glad you asked. Smoke was blown up the person’s butt by inserting a tube that was connected to a fumigator which bellowed the smoke into the rectum when compressed. They thought that the nicotine in the tobacco stimulated the heartbeat and that the rectum was a quicker way into the body…than lets say…the nose or mouth. The use of tobacco didn’t just start in the 1700s (early Greeks and Native Americans were using smoke enemas to treat people and animals); but thankfully, over the decades to come, scientists realized that nicotine was toxic to the cardiac system and ‘blowing smoke up someone’s butt’ became a thing of the past.

Meaning: A mostly insincere compliment to boost the ego of the recipient.


Brand Spanking New” – 

Origin: Mostly every single human being on this planet has experienced the origin of this idiom. It happens right after the birth of a baby usually calls for a slight slap on the hind end of the baby to get it to cry…thusly causing the baby to take its first breaths and to stimulate the baby. The practice is not necessarily used anymore but it is a wildly known practice. The other part of this idiom is the use of the word ‘brand’. Most of us think of ‘brand’ as a brand of jeans or our favorite brand of soda but since at least 950 AD, to brand something meant to ‘make an indelible mark of ownership. This practice was usually the name (you get it now) of the person that owned the livestock that received the ‘mark’. So if something if ‘brand new’ then that something has a fresh branding while if something is ‘brand spanking new’…well that means that it is so new that it is baby spanking new.

Meaning: Something that is entirely new.


Throwing a hissy fit” –

Origin: The origin of the idiom or colloquial phrase ‘throwing a hissy fit’ quite literally has two direct links. The term originated during the mid 20th century in the United States and is an expression alluding to someone hissing and spluttering their words during a temper tantrum…or it is just a contraction of the word hysterical. And hysterical is definitely what you are when you are ‘throwing a hissy fit’.

Meaning: A temperamental outburst or tantrum.


 

Images:
Tears of a Crocodile by and accredited to Sankalp Ranjan – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=49511935
A 1776 drawing of a tobacco smoke enema device by Unknown – Medical textbook published in Berne, Switzerland, 1776. Reproduced in André Holenstein (Ed.): Berns goldene Zeit, p.76 [ISBN 978-3-7272-1281-9], Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=5290890
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