Today’s journey into the heart of idiom country will find us in the South. And by South, I do mean the deep South. Most of the colloquial phrases that we will discuss today are phrases that we associate with people from the South. You will hear these exaggerated phrases in movies and TV shows where the person portrayed is from the South. You’ll also hear these colloquial sayings if you hang around your Southern grandmother for any extended period of time. Today we will explore the origins of: Close but no cigar, Break the ice, Finer than frog hair, Lord willing and/As long as the creek don’t rise, Bleed like a stuck pig, and Slicker than whale snot/slicker than snot on a door knob.
“Close but no cigar” –
Origin: You’ve probably heard someone say ‘close but no cigar’ or its variant ‘nice try, but no cigar’ from your Uncle if you’re from the American South or perhaps from anyone else from around the world after the popularization of the phrase. The origin of the phrase is not defined to one specific place and time but in the mid-20th century; fairgrounds, bars, and stores had nickle games that gave out cigars as prizes. The phrase was put in print in Sayre and Twist’s script of the 1935 film of Annie Oakley: “Close, Colonel, but no cigar!” After this it appeared more and more in US newspapers and other publications; causing an increase in popularity throughout the world.
Meaning: Not reaching the successful outcome and thus will get nothing for your efforts.
“Break the ice” –
Origin: The earliest meaning of the idiom “break the ice” was ‘to forge a path for others to follow’, but the significance of the idiom lies on the water. Well water covered in ice to be more precise. In polar expeditions, there would be a lead boat that was equipped with strengthened hulls and more powerful engines that were used to ‘break the ice’ so that the other boats could follow behind. The term ‘ice-breaker’ began to be a socially used term in regards to initiating conversations with strangers and was even used by Mark Twain in Life on Mississippi: “They closed up the inundation with a few words – having used it, evidently, as a mere ice-breaker and acquaintanceship-breeder – then they dropped into business.” Thank God that Sir Thomas North ‘broke the ice’ in 1579 when he (the first known person to use the term in writing) says in his translation of Plutarch’s Lives on the noble Grecians and Romanes, “To be the first to break the Ice of the Enterprize.” Better yet when Samual Butler used it in Hudibras (1678), “…(a)t last broke silence, and the ice” and popularized the term as it used now.
Meaning: To remove the tension at the opening of a party, once first entering a room, etc.
“Finer than frog hair” –
Origin: The idiom ‘finer than/fine as frog hair’ is about as country as you can get. It was one of my late grandfather’s favorite sayings. The idiom dates back to before the mid 19th century and was first in print in C. Davis’s Diary of 1865 in an entry where it is said, “I have a better flow of spirits this morning, and, in fact, feel as fine as frog’s hair, as Potso used to say.” Of course this is merely an ironic reference because…frog’s don’t have hair.
Meaning: Something that is extremely fine; delicate, slender.
“Lord willing and the creek don’t rise” –
Origins: The origin for the idiom “as long as the creek don’t rise” or “Lord willing and the creek don’t rise” seems like it should be an open and shut case but like most things, we’ll need to let the proverbial wheel roll around a couple more turns until we find the leak. You would think that it is a simplistic reference to the fact that you will be able to do something as long as the water doesn’t rise up and block the bridge that you would have to travel back through; but we would be wrong in thinking this. The idiom has two possible origins. One more complicated than the other. The more complicated is in reference to a quote from Benjamin Hawkins (a Georgia native that lived in the United States during the American Revolution). Hawkins response to the President’s plea for him to return to the capitol was supposedly that he would return “Lord willing and the creek don’t rise”. The significance of this supposed statement is that he was supposedly not referencing a specific body of water but was referencing the Creek Indian nation participating in an uprising in that specific part of the country in which he was acting as Superintendent of the Tribes of the Ohio River. There is no proof that he actually said this but it sounds like a spectacularly exciting explanation of the idiom but more than likely the origin is relatively simplistic. The idiom gained popularity in the Appalachian mountains of the United States where occasional and unpredictably rainfall could leave one rural neighborhood or home inaccessible on many occasions. I’m guessing that the saying was meant to sound something like “I’ll see you next week; as long as the good Lord is willing, and as long as we don’t have an immense amount of rainfall that washes away the bridge or path that connects these two areas” but by dialects ended up sounding something like “Lort willin’ an’ th’ crick don’ rise”.
Meaning: An expression in reference to something happening as long as unforeseen events don’t take place.
“Bleed like a stuck pig” –
Origin: The idiom “bleed like a stuck pig” has one of the most cut and dry (no pun intended) origins of all. It is literally a reference to the fact that when you cut the throat of a pig set for slaughter with an extremely sharp knife, the cut severs the main arteries (the jugular vein) that disperse blood throughout the body; thus causing the pig to bleed out rapidly.
Meaning: To bleed heavily.
“Slicker than whale snot/slicker than snot on a door knob” –
Origin: This is another one of those colloquial idioms that do not have a definite origin but is immensely popular in the South of the United States. The two variations are both used but have different, equally disturbing meanings. The first variation “slicker than whale snot” is more than likely in reference to the greasy consistency of whale blubber oil (which was used to make oil for lamps, soap and margarine before the banning of whaling). The second variation, “slicker than snot on a door knob” is literally a quite nauseating way of comparing how ‘slick’ something is to ‘human snot’ being on a solid object. I uh….I am not to fond of that one. Blah.
Meaning: Comparison between a slick surface and that of snot/whale oil to express the extent of the slickness.
Pilot Boat near Helsinki image by and accredited to Sean Biehle from Cincinnati, OH, USA – Ice Breaker, CC BY-SA 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=4646130