Just in the Nick of Time: A History of Interesting Idioms and Colloquial Phrases – Part 8

It has been quite some time since I’ve written about one of my favorite things: the idioms and colloquial phrases that we use in our every day language. As we have discussed before; these idioms and colloquial phrases sometimes sound completely ludicrous out of context, but many of them have very real and amazingly explainable origins.  This time we will look into the history of:

Hold a candle to, One in the hand is better than two in the bush, The pot calling the kettle black, Bust your balls, It’s getting deep, Blood is thicker than water



Candela_al_buio

“Hold a Candle to” – 

Origin: The phrase ‘hold a candle to’ has a pretty straight forward origin. Before the advent of electricity, apprentices were expected to hold a candle for the more experienced workman could stay focused on their task. Someone who was not able to live up these expectations would not even able ‘to hold a candle’ for whom the person tried to apprentice. The phrase was first found in the writing of Sir Edward Dering where in 1641 he wrote that he “…be not worthy to hold the candle to Aristotle.”

Meaning: To compare yourself to an expert when you are unfit to even hold a subordinate position to said expert.



Bowl_with_a_rider_hunting_with_a_falcon,_Iran,_Nishapur,_9th-10th_century,_slipped,_painted,_and_glazed_earthenware_-_Royal_Ontario_Museum_-_DSC04580.jpeg

“One in the Hand is better than Two in the Bush/A bird in the Hand is worth Two in the Bush”

Origin: Sometimes old idioms and colloquial phrases are actually ancient proverbs that we still find ourselves using in our modern day. This reigns true for the “A bird in the hand is worth two in the bush” proverb that has two possible and Bird-in-Hand,_PA_Keystone_Marker.jpgmaybe coinciding meanings. First off, the phrase has absolutely  nothing to do with the sleepy little town in Pennsylvania’s Amish County; Bird-In-Hand, PA. The first warns us against taking a great risk to try and gain more but end up losing everything; while the other refers to an ancient hunting technique. In medieval times, falconry was extremely popular and therefore the bird (aka your falcon) was a more valuable asset to a hunter and certainly worth more than two potential prey (the other birds) in a bush. The first printed version of this expression is found in John Ray’s 1670 book, A Hand-book of Proverbs in which he says, “A bird in the hand is worth two in the bush.” Despite the phrase originating hundreds of years ago, the warning still remains true to this day.

Meaning: It’s better to have something than to try for the possibility of something greater and end up with nothing at all.



Old_Black_Kettle

“Pot Calling the Kettle Black” – 

Origin: In the 1620 Thomas Shelton translation of Cervantes Saavedra’s History of Don Quixote; the phrase ‘pot calling the kettle black’ is hinted upon by Cervantes when he says “you are like what is said that the frying=pan said to the kettle. ‘Avant, black-browes’. Years before this translation showed up, Shakespeare used a similar expression in the 1606 tragedy Troilus and Cressida when he said that “(t)he raven chides blackness.” It was William Penn’s (you know the founder of Pennsylvania) 1682 Quaker version of the Poor Richard’s Almanack, Some Fruits of Solitude, that we found its modern usage when he wrote that “a covetous man to inveigh against Prodigality…is for the Pot to call the Kettle black.” It is definitely a truly obscure comparison; but the phrase has found itself staying in the lexicon of different languages across the planet which has continued to spread throughout the centuries.

Meaning: The notion that the criticism someone makes of someone could apply to themselves.



Taureau_charolais_2

“Bust your Balls” – 

Origin: Martin Scorsese’s 1990 crime film Goodfellas is a classic tale of mob life showcases a rare glimpsed into the mob subculture and doesn’t provide a glamorization of the deplorable acts of the mob; but what it does provide some amazing movie quotes. One of those quotes came from the veteran actor Frank Vincent’s portrayal of Billy Batts when he tells Tommy DeVito that he is just “breaking your balls”. The crude reference has been popular ever since and derives from an old Italian expression: non rompermi i coglioni which is translated as “don’t break my balls”. So where in the world did they get this imagery from? Well the true meaning of the phrase is in reference to actual ball busting. Yeah, I know. Ball busting occurs in the cattle industry and beef cattle farmers prefer to have ‘castrated’ male bulls; because they are more docile and are not as rough on equipment during the killing process. Whatever the origin and for whatever reason someone starting using the slang phrase, we know that it is definitely offensive language but it definitely gets the point across. So…don’t bust my balls, I’m just writing a blog. 😉

Meaning: To pick on someone to the point that it evokes anger.



Read the story of this trip on www.mylastdestination.eu !

“It’s getting deep” – 

Origin: There is no definite origin to speak of when it comes to someone saying that ‘it’s getting deep’ or that something is ‘deep’. What I can tell you is that this situational phrase is used to describe a time when a person telling a story is telling so big of a far fetched tale that it feels like the room is filling up. I have always heard that it is a reference to someone calling someone on their ‘bullcrap’ and therefore the room is filling up with all of the ‘bullcrap’. It could also be in reference to someone filling up the room with the trash that they are speaking. Either way, we all know that one guy who fills up rooms every time he speaks.

Meaning: Phrase used to describe a situation in which a person telling  story is spewing so may untruths that the room is metaphorically filling up with their lies.



Inupiat_Family_from_Noatak,_Alaska,_1929,_Edward_S._Curtis_(restored).jpg

“Blood is thicker than water” – 

Origin: Family. Family is first thought that comes to mind when you think about blood being thicker than water; and that was exactly what famed Scottish novelist, poet, historian, and biographer had in mind when he used the phrase for the first time in his 1815 work Guy Mannering. In the work a character says, “Weel, blude’s thicker than water; she’s welcome to the cheese and the hams just the same.” Being that Scott is known for coining new phrases; the man known to be the ‘greatest practioner of the historical novel” was more than likely the originator of the phrase. So this phrase truly has nothing to do with the viscosity of blood vs that of water; but that family bonds are closer than that of others.

Meaning: The bonds of family are closer than those of others.



Don’t forget to check out parts 7, 6, 5, 4, 3, 2, and 1 of this series to continue in your educational journey. 



Images: 
Candela Fotografata by and attributed to Luca Casartelli – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=18794750
Iranian bowl featuring image of horseback rider hunting with a falcon at Royal Ontario Museum image by Daderot – Own work, CC0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=34022346
Featured Image: Keystone Marker for Bird-in-Hand, Pennsylvania image by and accredited to Doug Kerr – Flickr: Bird-In-Hand, Pennsylvania, CC BY-SA 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=17171452
An Old Red Kettle, blacked with soot image by and accredited to Susan Dussaman – https://flic.kr/p/9MScDZ, CC BY-SA 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=48282660
French Charolais Bull image by and accredited to Forum concoursvaches.fr – http://www.concoursvaches.fr, GFDL, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=10644454
Flooded Room in Linz image by and accredited to Guillaume Speurt from Vilnius, Lithuania – Flooded room in Linz, CC BY-SA 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=25615112
Inupiat Eskimo family portrait by and accredited to Edward S. Curtis – This file was derived from Inupiat Family from Noatak, Alaska, 1929, Edward S. Curtis.jpg:, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=24953870
Advertisements

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

Just in the Nick of Time: A History of Interesting Idioms and Colloquial Phrases – Part 6

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.



2f051bc09c22742004cd619de38b2fa3--square-deal-vending-machines

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.



Pilot_boat_near_Helsinki

“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.



Bottle_of_whale_oil

“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.



Images:

Feautred Image – Square Deal Dice Popper Cigar Vintage Gaming machine image courtesy of ChadsCoinOp.com – http://www.chadscoinop.com/picgallery/Square%20Deal%20Dice%20Popper.html
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
Bottle of Whale Oil photo by and accredited to Chris Linardos – http://www.flickr.com/photos/chris-linardos/5386324261/, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=23623619