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
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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 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

Just in the Nick of Time: A History of Interesting Idioms and Colloquial Phrases – Part 4

We are now venturing onto the 4th blog in our ten part series. If you missed out; you can visit their magnanimous wonder (1, 2, and, 3) after you have read number this one of course. In part four of our Just in the Nick of Time: A History of Interesting Idioms and Colloquial Phrases series, we will be learning the history of: For Pete’s sake, Quitting cold turkey, High on the hog, Dead as a doornail, Down to Earth, and Taking a raincheck.



For_petes_sake

“For Pete’s Sake” – 

Origin: We all have heard someone from the American South (whether in person or on TV) say “For Pete’s Sake”; but have you, like I, wondered who in the world Pete is? Well as your face radiates with magnanimous wonder awaiting the origin of this much used word, I have to regretfully tell you that…no one really knows. The Oxford English Dictionary says that the saying started more than century ago as a euphemistic variant of “for God’s sake”. As we said in our last idiom blog, ‘dog gone’ is a replacement for something that take’s the Lord’s name in vain and most people of that period (and currently as well) would steer clear of blasphemy. Some scholars have speculated that the ‘Pete’ is none other than Saint Peter himself but that is just speculation. Another speculation is the pete is actually a modified version of ‘for pity’s sake’ but as I said…regretfully no one knows for sure.

Meaning: An exclamation of emphasis, surprise, or disbelief.



ColdTurkey

“Quitting Cold Turkey”

Origin: One of my best friends who smoked cigarettes since he was 13 said he had ‘just quit cold turkey’. And I knew that that friend meant that he had stopped smoking cigarettes…and not just given up eating cold sliced deli meat but I still can’t help but chuckle when I hear someone say that phrase. There have been many explanations as to the origin of why someone would compare ‘quitting’ or doing something definite with of all things…cold turkey. In 1921, Dr. Carleton Simon spoke about his pitiful patients and described their ‘cold turkey’ treatment. I guess if you’re hungry, a cold turkey treatment sounds great but what if you are a recovering heroin addict? Herb Caen, from the San Fransisco Chronicle says that the saying “…derives from the hideous combination of goosepimples and what William S. Burroughs calls the ‘cold burn’ that addicts suffer as they kick the habit.” Sounds like a more logical explanation than author Tom Philbin’s theory that the saying derives from the ‘term that  may derive from the cold, clammy feel of the skin during withdrawl, like a turkey that has been refrigerated.” The only draw back to this explanation is that the saying originated many years before it was used in conjunction with ‘stopping an addiction’. Though the term was used early in the 1900s, the term cold turkey is thought to have derived from the 1800s phrase ‘talk turkey’. Talk turkey meant to tell something plainly, while being cold meant to be straightforward and use a matter-of-fact tone. So whether it is cigarettes or stopping playing video games until 3 in the morning when you have to be at work at 7:30…stopping something cold turkey means that you are immediately stopping something despite the discomfort that comes along with it.

Meaning: Withdraw from an addictive substance or other dependency.



“High on the Hog”

Origin: We all know someone who is living ‘high on the hog’ but what does that exactly mean? Despite the saying ‘living high on the hog’ becoming popularized in the 1940s, the saying originated in the 1800s as an idiomatic expression for someone who is eating or living wealthy. We take advantage of the common convenience of the grocery store and the competitive prices found at Food Lion or Walmart; but many years ago, the only way to eat meat was to slaughter the animal on your own farm or to go to a butcher. On a hog, the most costly cuts of meat that are literally higher on the pig’s body are more expensive. The ‘low on the hog’ items like the feet, knuckles, hocks, belly, chitterlings, snout, jowls, etc were lower priced and therefore were purchased by poor people. So if you were rich, you were quite literally eating…high on the hog.

Meaning: Living comfortably and living/eating extravagantly.



“Dead as a Doornail” – 

Origin: In King Henry VI, Part 2; Shakespeare wrote, “Look on me well…if I do not leave you all as dead as a doornail, I pray God I may never eat grass more.” It would seem that a lot of emphasis was placed on the life of a doornail prior to 1592, but Shakespeare wasn’t the first to coin the phrase. In 1350, French poet William Langland translated a poem using the phrase “I am ded as dorenayl,” and later in 1362 wrote in his famous poem The Vision of William Concerning Piers Plowman, “Fey withouten fait is febelore þen nouȝt, And ded as a dore-nayl (which is translated to be “Faith without works is feebler than nothing, and dead as a doornail.”). It is logical that Shakespeare got the influence from Langland’s poetry but where did the expression come from prior to the 1300s? In A Christmas Carol, Charles Dickens alluded to the meaning of the phrase after he stated that “Old Marley was as dead as a door-nail” when he said:

“Mind! I don’t mean to say that I know, of my own knowledge, what there is particularly dead about a door-nail. I might have been inclined, myself, to regard a coffin-nail as the deadest piece of ironmongery in the trade. But the wisdom of our ancestors is in the simile; and my unhallowed hands shall not disturb it, or the Country’s done for. You will therefore permit me to repeat, emphatically, that Marley was as dead as a door-nail.”

Dickens knew, as we will in a few moments, that a doornail was actually the large-headed studs that were used in carpentry to add stability to a home’s doorway. The doornail was produced by the carpenter hammering the nail through the board, into the wall, and then bending the end over to secure it properly. This process, which is similar to riveting, was called clenching.  The clenching would cause the nail to be ‘dead’ due to the the fact that after the bending the nail would be unusable (dead is a term associated with inanimate objects when they are unusable or when someone is finished with them).  Despite the simile being around since the 1300s, it would appear that there is plenty of life left in this idiom.

Meaning: Absent of life, dead (when in reference to a living object). Finished with, unusable (when in reference to an inanimate object).



 

“Down to Earth” – 

Origin: The 1932 book and subsequent movie Down to Earth, is more than likely the reason behind the popularity of the phrase despite a 1922 Newark Advocate garment advertisement utilizing the phrase to describe the ‘down to earth’ prices as opposed to the ‘astronomical’ prices of competitive brands. Down to Earth was a riches to rags story which ended with the wealthy man losing his wealth thanks to a spendthrift wife and a gambling son. After living the extravagant lifestyle before, he actually ends up happy in the end, because he is more ‘down to earth’

Meaning: Simple, realistic, practical and/or straightforward.



baseball rain check

“Taking a Raincheck” – 

Origin: My best friend and I were supposed to go watch a movie last weekend but I had to tell him that I had to take a rain check. It was raining coincidentally but I have always wondered what the exact meaning behind the phrase was. The first mention of the phrase ‘taking a rain check’ comes from baseball games from the 1880s. We all know that rain is something that we cannot control (or at least that’s what the government wants us to think ;)), so if a baseball game in the 1880s was rained out, then the ticket-holder would be issued a ‘rain check’ (sometimes a perforated stub to be torn from the ticket as popularized by Abner Powell) to be able to gain entrance to another game or when that game was replayed. Baseball’s National League actually wrote the ‘rain check’ stipulation into their formal constitution in 1890. The ‘rain check’ phrase caught on. The phrase is now used for simplistic things like promising to go out to eat with someone in the near future but I’ll take a rain check on writing anything else today. 😉

Meaning: Idiomatically is a polite way to turn down an invitation with the implication that you will accept the offer in the future while etymologically and literally is in reference to a physical ticket or check to receive goods of services at a future time.



Images: 

Featured Image – Our Gang in “For Pete’s Sake!” episode marker, fair use.

Cold Turkey image by and accredited to Jonathunder – Own work, GFDL, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=3465369

1939 American League Baseball Club ticket photo accredited to the Baseball Hall of Fame, Fair use.

Just in the Nick of Time: A History of Interesting Idioms and Colloquial Phrases – Part 3

The Just in the Nick of Time: A History of Interesting Idioms and Colloquial Phrases series is 3 blogs into its 10 part series. This historical linguist journey has allowed us to find out the history behind some of the most interesting idioms and kooky colloquial phrases that we use in the United States. With parts 1 and 2 already behind us, in part 3 we will find out the history behind: “Clear as a bell”, “Cut from the same cloth”, “I’ll be dog gone”, “Getting a leg up”, “Horse of a different color”, and “Cat got your tongue”.



sonora-phonograph-feb-1920-ottawa-citizen

“Clear as a bell”

Origin: In Much Ado About Nothing, Shakespeare said that “He hath a heart as sound as a bell, and his tongue is the clapper…,” so the comparison and utilization of the sound of bells in spoken and written literature has a long history. Bells have been found by archaeologists in sites dating back to the 3rd millennium BC throughout China, so to say that the bell has been around for a long time is an understatement. The bells for  the early Chinese workers were used to signify times of work and for religious reasons. Christians also use bells atop their churches and bells of all kinds are known to be large and loud. The sound can be heard for great distances and a single bell is distinct and unmistakeable. Before electric sirens and amplifiers, bells were used to signal people of events because the bell could be heard over the great distances. By 1910, phonographs were all the rage. Advertising was important to these companies to differentiate themselves from others; and the Sonora Chime Company chose to ring out above the rest with the slogan: “Clear as a Bell”.

Meaning: It is easily understood.



“Cut from the Same Cloth”

Origin: My wife is an extremely talented woman and is great at sewing and crocheting; so I know that she will love to hear where that the term “cut from the same cloth” really did come from sewing. The idiom comes from a tailor or seamstress who is making a jacket and trouser set. The two should be cut from the same skein of fabric to ensure that the two pieces will match perfectly, since fabric batches differ. Despite the pattern, a skein of fabric or yarn will differ after many runs because a color may be brighter or lighter in a future batch….therefore something that is truly alike will be ‘cut from the same cloth’.

Meaning: Individuals who are very similar in very specific ways.



“I’ll be doggone”

Origin: The etymology for the expression ‘doggone it’ or ‘I’ll be doggone’ is a euphemism for the vile adjective and noun combo: God d*mn. I know. I didn’t even want to type that because it hurts my ears to even hear it but in the 1800s (and even earlier in Scotland), doggone began as a clean deformation of the profane curse which means to be d*mn or to be d*mned (depending on the usage). The expression was written as both, “dog gone” and “dog on” throughout most of the 19th century and could be said either way…depending on where you are in the country.

Meaning: To d*mn or be d*mned.



“Getting a leg up”

Origin: It’s not what you think. When you first hear someone say ‘getting a leg up’, the 12 year old inside of you thinks that someone is talking about a male dog marking his territory. You just pictured it in your mind didn’t you? But you’d be wrong in this case. The idiom ‘getting a leg up’ actually derives from horseback riding. Specifically in the case of an equestrian receiving help to mount their horse. The helper in this case would create a foothold with their hands and would help the equestrian ‘get their leg up’ over the horse. I would much rather picture this…than image a dog peeing.

Meaning: To receive a boost or an advantage in position



“Horse of a different color”

Origin: Here we find ourselves talking about everyone’s favorite equine: the horse but this phrase is a horse of a different color. That worked out perfectly. The idiom ‘horse of a different color’ originated during Medieval times. During medieval tournaments, specifically jousting, the riders rode different colored horses in the races. This would allow the spectators to be able to properly differentiate which rider they were pulling for. Historical documents have confirmed that gambling at medieval tournaments was a favorite pastime and historians have figured that the idiom originated with someone being told that the ‘horse of a different color’ was victorious. Sounds logical but we turn to Shakespeare again to confirm the idiom’s antique heritage. In Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night, Maria says to Sir Andrew, “My purpose is, indeed, a horse of that colour.” This statement means that the expression was established far before 1601.

Meaning: Another matter entirely.



“Cat got your tongue?”

Origin: I have chosen to briefly discuss the idiom “Has the cat got your tongue?” despite there not being any direct link to any specific historical event or piece of literature. The idiom is however a direct correlation to two possible scenarios. The first scenario would be that the flog from the cat-o’-nine-tails was so painful that it rendered the receiver unable to speak for long periods of time. The other possible scenario would be that in ancient Egypt, liars and blasphemers would be tortured and have their tongues cut out. The tongue would then be fed to the cats. Two definite possible scenarios that I can neither confirm nor deny the authenticity of.

Meaning: A question to someone who is at a loss for words.



Image: Sonora Chime Company “Caprice” advertisement, fair use.

Just in the Nick of Time: A History of Interesting Idioms and Colloquial Phrases – Part 2

 

The dialect, idioms and colloquial phrasesIn part one of our ten part series (Just in the Nick of Time: A History of Interesting Idioms and Colloquial Phrases – Part 1), we learned the history of some interesting idioms and colloquial phrases. In Part 2 of our series we will be covering the history behind “Strike while the iron is hot”, “Don’ t throw the baby out with the bath water”, “Down to the Wire”, “Three Sheets to the Wind”, “Down in the dumps”, and “You get the Drift”.



“Strike while the iron is hot”

Origin: The science of metallurgy has been around for thousands of years but certain terms related to this seemingly lost art have been lost throughout the years. To “strike while the iron is hot” is a term that is used heavily in our modern lexicon but few realize that the idiom is directly alluding to a metallurgy practice. A blacksmith or farrier would use a forge (a heater specialized in heating up metal) and upon heating up the piece of metal, would use specialized hammers and tools to shape the metal. If the blacksmith or farrier doesn’t strike while the piece was hot, then the metal would cool (thusly leading to it hardening) and it is impossible to shape the piece until it is heated up again.

Meaning: Take your opportunities when they arise.



Murner.Nerrenbeschwerung.kind

“Don’t throw the baby out with the bathwater.” 

Origin: “Don’t throw the baby out with the bathwater,” is a phrase that is not commonly used but we all have heard it. The obscure reference to throwing a baby out with the bathwater is an idiomatic expression derived from a bathing process many years ago where the head or Lord of the household would bathe first, followed by other men, then the lady of the house and other women, then the children, followed lastly by the baby. By the end of the bathing time, the water would be so dirty that a baby could be unseen and could be accidently ‘tossed out with the bathwater’. The practice sounds disgusting but in the 1500s, their personal hygiene practices were vastly different than our current practices. The idiom is taken from a German proverb and the earliest record of the phrase ‘throw the baby out in the bathwater was written by Thomas Murner in 1512. In his book Narrenbeschwörung (the Appeal to Fools or directly translated as the “Fool Incantation”), there is a woodcut illustration of a woman tossing a baby out with the bath water. The very common German catchphrase survived some German’s immigration to America and I guess the phrase just never left us.

Meaning: Don’t eliminate the good while trying to expel the bad.



“Down to the wire” – 

Origin: The idiom “down to the wire” actually has nothing to do with electricity as I always thought it did. I figured that it had something to do with that red wire that the bomb squad guy always had to cut. That that scenario of having something be ‘down to the wire’ was actually not the origin. The origin of the idiom was actually from the early 19th century. In official horse races, the judges would string a small wire across the track (just above the finish line) to help them to visually determine which horse won the race.

Meaning: Waiting until the last minute to do something.



“Three sheets to the wind”

Origin: We’ve all heard someone describe an extremely drunk person as being ‘three sheets to the wind’ but what exactly are they referring to? Well strangely enough the idiom is derived from sailing ships. The ‘sheet’ that they are referring to is the nautical term for the rope that controls the trim of sail. A sail is known to be ‘sheeted to the wind’ when it is set to backfill (which in nautical terminology means that it is set to the opposite side of the ship from normal use). This is bad thing. In a major storm when a ship is ‘hove to’, the helm is lashed to windward and the sails are sheeted to the windward side of the ship (aka sheeted to the wind). As the storm gets stronger, the larger ships that would have three sails, would be rock in the ocean pretty badly because it would have to be sitting sideways in the wind. The wind would be rocking it back and forth and would be in constant danger. Are you seeing the correlation yet? When a person is completely drunk; wildly rolling from side to side and not able to control themselves they are just like a ship during a storm…three sheets to the wind.

Meaning: Completely drunk.



 

“Down in the Dumps”

Origin: In our modern vernacular, a dump is a place that we go and ‘dump’ our trash; but in medieval times, the term ‘the dumps’ was not actually in reference to a place. The dumps was a commonplace expression that meant sadness and depression. Everyone from Shakespeare to Henry More have used the expression in their writing; but that still doesn’t answer the question as to how the word ‘dumps’ came to mean depression. The word Dumps has two options for its past. The first option is that of a reference to a tale of  King from Egypt who built a pyramid but died of sadness. And his name? Dumpos. This explanation is highly doubtful because this king did not actually exist and only is known through fables. The other explanation would be that England natives of that time had an extremely dense, sad looking pudding called Dumplin. So either explanation could work but there is no definitive story to make either definite.

Meaning: To be unhappy; depressed.



“You get the drift”

Origin: Since the early 1500s, the word drift has also meant purport. If you’re still not clear, the word purport means for something to appear, claim to be something or the substance of something. So the word drift meant for something to be apparent or to appear. The colloquial use of getting of catching someone’s drift is an indication for the reader or listener to not just take what is being read or heard at face value and to use inference to better understand. The term originated in a boating and to ‘catch the drift’ means for other boats to not reprieve the direction of the current, thusly they are ‘catching the drift’.

Meaning: “If you know what I mean”




Images:

Narrenbeschworung (Appeal to Fools) by Thomas Murner, 1512, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=689179

Just in the Nick of Time: A History of Interesting Idioms and Colloquial Phrases – Part 1

I’m sure that you’ve heard some sweet Southern lady say, “well bless your heart.” And based on whatever part of the United States that you are from, you have heard many interesting colloquial sayings or idioms that we use but don’t put that much thought into their actual meaning. Sadly most of us don’t put in the elbow grease to dig deep into the background and find out the actual meaning of these colorful additions to our lexicon. Well thankfully for you, I’m just nosey enough and love the English language enough to have a true conviction to want to know. Make sure you read all of the 10 part investigatory series to find out the meaning behind the most commonly used idioms in the United States.

Floor_7a_bookstacks_in_Sterling_Memorial_Library

In our first blog of the series, we’ll investigate the history behind some extremely interesting idioms and colloquial phrases: “Just in the Nick of Time“, “Well I’ll be John Brown/Browned“, “Bury the Hatchet“, “Butter someone up“, “Mad as a Hatter” and “More than you can shake a stick at”.



“Just in the Nick of Time” – 

Origin: Despite what it seems, arriving in the ‘nick’ of time does not involve a guy named Nick. In 13th and 14th century England, the idiom ‘in the nick of time’ appeared and the nick was meant to represent a notch or small cut. This is synonymous with precision timing. These notches or tally marks were used to measure time or to keep score in a game. As time went on these ‘nicks’ referred to the pre-marked ‘nicks’ on a watch or clock that keeps the watch precisely adjusted.

Meaning: To be ‘just in time; or arrive at ‘the precise moment’.



“Well I’ll be John Brown/Browned” – 

Origin: You have most likely heard the colloquial phrase “Well I’ll be John Brown/Browned” if you live in the South. You would think that to have such a specific name in a phrase must have its origins to a specific person. If you wondered that, then you would be right. John Brown was an abolitionist in the 1800s who attempted to lead a slave rebellion by raiding the federal armory in Harpers Ferry, Virginia. This led to John Brown’s hanging in 1859. The use of the phrase “I’ll be John Browned was used to mean that someone’s involvement in something would lead to their hanging and/or imminent death. Years went by and people used the term to mean that they would be damned. When using the current terminology, “Well I’ll be John Brown” is interpreted that that something is a surprise.

Meaning: “Well I’ll be d*mned”



“Bury the hatchet”

Origin: The figurative expression of ‘burying the hatchet’ is based on a literal custom. Early American Indian Chiefs, upon reaching a peace agreement, would quite literally bury weapons to signify the peace between the two tribes. The literal ‘burial’ of the hatchet would mean that they would not have a way to fight one another, after the articles of peace had been agreed upon.

Meaning: To settle the differences between adversaries.



“Butter someone up”

Origin: For many years, it has been the belief that to ‘butter someone up’ meant that you were laying on flattery as thick as butter on bread but the idiom is actually much older than that. The idiom is actually based on an ancient Indian custom of ‘throwing balls of ghee (a clarified butter used in Indian cooking) at the statues of the gods’ to receive blessings from them. The Tibetan people also created butter sculptures during New Year (a tradition which can be traced back to the Tang Dynasty) to receive peace and happiness during the next year. SO the idiom buttering someone up actually refers to the quite literal ‘buttering’ of gods.

Meaning: To flatter someone in order to receive special favor.



“Mad as a Hatter”

Origin: You may have thought you knew where this one came from but the origin will surprise you. Lewis Caroll’s book Alice in Wonderland, may have had a Mad Hatter (quite literally a hatter who was mad) but the origins of the idiom ‘mad as a hatter’ finds its origins in 17th and 18th century France. In 17th century France, mercury was used to aid in forming hat felt. The hat makers would become poisoned and the symptoms made the hatters appear to be mad. The “Mad Hatter Disease” thusly was used as term of mental instability and thusly the ‘mad as a hatter’ idiom was born.

Meaning: To appear to be mad/crazy.


“More than you can shake a stick at.” 

Origin: The origin of the idiom ‘more than you can shake a stick at’ is two fold. The idiom had been a shepherding term that referred to a shepherd/farmer who had more sheep than they could control/count with their wooden staff. This was the origin of the phrase but American generals in the Revolutionary War started using the expression to justify a battle loss after George Washington waved a ceremonial wooden sword over the British troops that they had recently defeated. The generals would say that ‘they had more men to fight than you could wave a stick at’ to make an excuse for their failure on the field of battle. Over time the idiom began to be used to reference an excess or abundance of something.

Meaning: Having an over abundance of something; immeasurable.


Make sure that you check out “Just in the Nick of Time: A History of Interesting Idioms and Colloquial Phrases – Part 2”.


 

Images: Book stacks in Sterling Memorial Library at Yale University by and accredited to Ragesoss – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=4867448