Saturday, May 26, 2018
Here is the final installment of my 3 part series on historical trivia—Where Did Those Expressions Come From. These are listed in alphabetical N through Z.
Nick Of Time: How did we get the expression 'in the nick of time'?
Back in the days of medieval times, a tally was used to register attendance at colleges and churches. The tally was a wooden stick and attendance was indicated by a nick or notch in it. The person who arrived on time had his attendance 'nicked', therefore arriving 'in the nick of time.'
On The Carpet: How did being called 'on the carpet' come to mean a reprimand?
Originally, only the boss's office had a carpet, the other offices didn't. So, to be called 'on the carpet' meant to be called to the boss's office and this usually meant a reprimand.
Pup Tent: How did the 'pup tent' get that name?
These smaller than normal tents were named by the Union soldiers in the Civil War. When they were given to the soldiers, they looked so much like dog kennels that one of the men stuck his head out and began to bark. The idea caught on and soon the whole camp was barking. The tents were called dog tents with that name soon morphing into 'pup tent'.
Quarter (no quarter): Why do we say we give 'no quarter' when we mean to show no mercy?
Originally, to give quarter meant to send conquered enemy soldiers to a special section or quarter where they remained until their fate was determined. They could be set free, ransomed, or enslaved. If they were killed instead, they were given 'no quarter'.
Red Tape: Where did governmental delay get the name 'red tape'?
The expression came from England. For centuries, the British government followed the custom of tying up official papers with red tape. The wasted time spent in tying and untying the red tape used to bind the dispatches and document cases led men to pick it as the symbol of useless delay.
Slush Fund: How did a 'slush fund' get that name?
Aboard a sailing ship, slush was the waste fat from the galley and was used to grease the masts. All extra slush used to be the property of the cook and he didn't have to account for the money he made from selling it. Likewise, a 'slush fund' is money that doesn't need to be accounted for—and often was best not be.
Taxi: What is the reason a 'taxi' is called that?
The world originally referred to the meter carried by the cab. It was called a taximeter because it measured the fare or tax and cabs equipped with the meters painted taximeter on their doors. This was soon shortened to 'taxi' and in time all cabs were called by that name.
Upper Crust: Why do we call high society the 'upper crust'?
The crust was long considered the best part of the bread and the upper or top crust was the best part of all. If high society is the best of all, then it's the 'upper crust'.
Volume: Why is a book called a 'volume'?
Ancient books were written on sheets of paper which were fastened together lengthwise and rolled up like a window shade. 'Volume' is from the Latin volvere meaning to roll up.
Wild Goose Chase: How did a 'wild goose chase' get that name?
A wild goose chase was once a sort of game, a horse race in which the second and each succeeding horse had to follow the leader accurately and at a definite interval. Since the horses had to keep their positions like geese in flight, the chase was called a 'wild goose chase'. Since this was not a race in which anyone could win, the phrase was adopted to describe a person following a course that led to no goal.
X-Ray: How did the 'X-ray' get that name?
The ray was first called the Roentgen ray in honor of the scientist who discovered it. But he preferred to call it 'X-ray' because X is the algebraic symbol for the unknown and at that time he did not understand the nature of this ray.
Yankee: What is the origin of the term 'Yankee'?
The word comes from a nickname for the Dutch—Jan Kaas meaning John Cheese. In pirate days, English sailors adopted the term as a derisive name for the Dutch freebooters. The Dutch settlers in New York (originally New Amsterdam) began to apply it to the English settlers in Connecticut because they believed the Connecticut English to be far more enterprising than ethical. The term spread to the other colonies, though at first it was almost always used to refer with dislike to the citizens of a colony farther north.
Zest: Why does 'zest' mean enthusiasm?
In its Greek form, zest meant a piece of orange or lemon peel. The addition of a slice of orange or lemon peel adds 'zest' to a drink or dish and makes us more enthusiastic about it.
And there you have it…a three-part small selection of every day expressions and their origins.
Saturday, May 19, 2018
Last week I gave you a list of 10 bits of historical trivia dealing with those expressions everyone uses, but whose origins have been obscured by time. This week in part 2 of 3, I'm presenting a list of an additional 13 such expressions, alphabetically A through M.
Annie Oakley: Why do we call a free pass to an event an 'Annie Oakley'?
Free passes were once punched full of holes. Annie Oakley was a famous rifle shot who, as part of her act, would shoot holes in a playing card held by an assistant.
Blurb: What is the origin of the word 'blurb'?
When Gellette Burgess' book, Are You A Bromide, was published, he devised a special dust jacket for 500 presentation copies to be given away at a booksellers' banquet. It was the custom at that time to have the picture of some woman on the jacket of every novel. He featured a sickly-sweet portrait of a young woman and in the accompanying text described her as a Miss Belinda Blurb. From this the usual dust cover jacket 'blow up' of an author and his book came to be called a blurb.
Clerk: How did an office assistant get the name 'clerk'?
At one time only the clergy could read or write so any person with this ability was assumed to be a cleric. From this, the words clerical and cleric were soon shortened to clerk and came to mean written work or one who performed such work.
Dirt Cheap: Why do we say something inexpensive is 'dirt cheap'?
Nothing is of less value. If you gather a big pile of dirt you would not increase your wealth. In fact, you would most likely have to pay someone to haul it away.
Exception Proves The Rule: What is the origin of the expression 'the exception proves the rule'?
Originally the word 'prove' meant 'test.' The phrase merely means that the exception tests the rule, which makes sense and is logical.
Fall Guy: Why do we call a dupe a 'fall guy'?
The word fall not only means to stumble but also to be lured or entrapped. We call a person a fall guy who is entrapped and left to suffer the punishment while the one who did the actual misdeed escapes.
Geronimo: Why do American paratroopers shout 'Geronimo' as they jump?
Several members of the first unit of parachute troops formed at Fort Benning, Georgia, went to see the movie Geronimo. Afterwords, in reference to the mock heroics of their practice jumps, they started calling each other by this name. From this came the paratroopers practice of shouting 'Geronimo' as he leaps from the plane.
Hair Of The Dog: Why is taking a morning-after drink as a hangover cure called taking a 'hair of the dog that bit you'?
The ancients believed one of the best cures for hydrophobia (rabies), or any other disease you might get from a dog bite, consisted of taking a hair of the dog that bit you and putting it in the wound.
Inside Track: Where did we get the expression 'he's got the inside track'?
It came from horse racing. The best position for a horse, the shortest distance around the race track to the finish line, is the one nearest the rail—the inside track.
Jog The Memory: What is the reason we say we 'jog the memory'?
Jog really means shake and when we jog a person's memory, we shake it up.
Killed With Kindness: Where did we get the expression killed with kindness?
This came from the story of Draco, the Athenian legislator, who died because of his popularity. The Greeks used to wave their caps and coats as a sign of approval and when they were extremely enthusiastic they tossed their hats and coats at the object of their enthusiasm. In the 6th century B.C., Draco aroused the enthusiasm of the audience in the theatre of Aegina to such an extent that the entire gathering showered him with caps and coats—and smothered him to death.
Lock, Stock, And Barrel: How did lock, stock and barrel come to mean all or everything?
There are 3 parts to a gun—the barrel, the stock, and the firing mechanism called the lock. By listing all 3, the totality of the rifle is reaffirmed—all of it.
Make The Bed: Why do we say we make the bed when we spread the sheets and blankets?
We speak of making the bed rather than fixing it or doing it because beds were once created anew each night from straw thrown on the floor.
Next week I'll share part 3 of this blog series, another 13 historical trivia phrases about everyday expressions (alphabetically N through Z).
Saturday, May 12, 2018
Ever wonder about those interesting expressions that have been handed down through the centuries? Phrases that we all use without giving any thought to where they came from or their original meaning? Let's take a look at the historical origin of some of these expressions. Here's a list of ten such expressions, part 1 of a 3 part blog series.
1) God willing and the Creeks don't rise
This expression was originally in reference to the Native American Creek tribe and not a body of water and is attributable to Benjamin Hawkins, a late 18th century politician. While in the south, he was requested by the President to return to Washington. In his response, he wrote, God willing and the Creeks don't rise. Since he capitalized the word Creeks, it was assumed he was referring to a hostile uprising of the Indian tribe rather than water.
2) It cost an arm and a leg
Since there weren't any cameras in George Washington's day, the only way to portray someone's image was either through sculpture or painting. Some paintings of Washington show him standing behind his desk with one arm behind his back while others show both arms and legs. Prices charged by artists were often calculated according to how many arms and legs were being painted rather than the number of people in the painting. Therefore, if the subject wanted both arms and legs in the painting, they were told, "Okay, but it will cost an arm and a leg."
3) Here comes the big wig
As ludicrous as it sounds today, back then men and women took baths only twice a year (usually May after the cold winter and October after a hot summer). Women covered their hair and men shaved their heads and wore wigs. The wealthy could afford good wigs made of wool. Since the wool wigs couldn't be washed, they would hollow out a loaf of bread and put the wig in the shell, then bake it for half an hour. The heat made the wigs big and fluffy, thus the term big wig. Today we use the expression when someone appears to be powerful and wealthy.
4) Chairman of the Board
Many houses in the late 1700s consisted of a large room with only one chair. A long wide board folded down from the wall and was used for dining. The head of the household always sat in the chair while everyone else sat on the floor while eating. To sit in the chair meant you were important and in charge and that person was referred to as the chair man. Today in business, we use the expression Chairman of the Board.
5) Crack a smile and other related phrases
One result of the lack of personal hygiene back then was that many men and women developed acne scars by adulthood. Women would spread bee's wax over their faces to smooth out their complexions. If a woman began to stare at another woman's face, she was told to mind your own bee's wax. If a woman smiled, the wax would crack, hence the term crack a smile. And when a woman sat too close to the fire the wax would melt, giving us the expression losing face.
6) Straight laced
Ladies wore corsets which laced up the front. A proper and dignified woman wore a tightly tied corset and was said to be straight laced.
7) Not playing with a full deck
Back in the day, a common form of entertainment was playing cards. When a tax was levied on the cards, it was applicable only to the ace of spades. To avoid paying the tax, people would purchase 51 cards and ignore the ace of spades. Since most card games require all 52 cards, those people were thought to be stupid because they were not playing with a full deck.
Long ago, before the creation of mass communication such as phones, radio, and television (and certainly the internet and various social media), politicians sent their assistants to local taverns to get feedback from the public and determine which issues people considered important. They were told to go sip some ale and listen to people's conversations. The two words go sip were eventually combined into one word, gossip, when referring to the local opinion.
9) Minding your P's and Q's
In the local taverns, people drank from pint and quart sized containers. One of the bar maid's jobs was to keep track of which customers were drinking from pints and which from quarts, hence the phrase minding your P's and Q's.
And finally an expression that has often been misinterpreted…
10) Cold enough to freeze the balls off a brass monkey
Back in the day when sailing ships ruled the waves, all war ships and many freighters carried iron cannons that fired iron cannon balls. It was necessary to keep a supply of cannon balls near the cannon while at the same time preventing them from rolling around the deck. The best storage method was a square-based pyramid with one ball perched on four balls resting on nine which sat on sixteen providing a supply of thirty cannon balls stacked in a small area next to the cannon. There was a problem, though—how to prevent the bottom layer from sliding out from under the others. The solution was a metal plate called a monkey with sixteen round indentations. But again, there was a problem. If the plate was made from iron, the iron cannon balls would quickly rust to it, especially in the damp ocean air. The solution to the rusting problem was to make brass monkeys. But still a problem…brass contracts much more and much quicker than iron when it's chilled. So, when the temperature dropped too far, the brass indentations would shrink so much that the iron cannonballs would come right off the monkey which means it was literally cold enough to freeze the balls off a brass monkey. Not what you were expecting? :)
Saturday, May 5, 2018
Mother's Day is a holiday honoring motherhood. It's observed in different forms in many countries, the date traditionally falling on the second Sunday in May in the United States (Sunday, May 13th this year). The American version of the holiday was created by Anna Jarvis in 1908 and became an official holiday in 1914. Some time later, Anna Jarvis denounced the holiday for being too commercial and spent the latter years of her life trying to get it removed.
The celebration of mothers and motherhood goes back to the ancient Greeks and Romans who held festivals honoring the mother goddesses. However, the clearest precedent for Mother's Day is the early Christian festival known as Mothering Sunday. This was once a major tradition in the UK and parts of Europe, falling on the fourth Sunday in Lent. It was a time when the faithful would return to their mother church (the main church in the vicinity of their home) for a special service. Over time the tradition shifted into a secular holiday with children bringing flowers to their mothers as tokens of appreciation. The roots of the modern American Mother's Day go back to the years prior to the U.S. Civil Way (1861-1865)
Even though versions of Mother's Day are celebrated throughout the world, traditions vary from country to country. For example, in Thailand Mother's Day is always celebrated in August on the birthday of the current queen. And in Ethiopia families gather each fall to sing songs and eat a large feast as part of a multi-day celebration honoring motherhood.
In the US, Mother's Day has become one of the biggest holidays for consumer spending…definitely a biggie for greeting cards and florists.