Brownielocks and The 3 Bears
Who Came Up With That One?
Origins of Commonly Spoken Words, Phrases and Sayings
|Thomas Drummond in
1816 devised a lighting source for theatres. It was a cylinder
of lime heated by an incandescence flame and placed behind a lens or
in front of a reflector. These "lime lights" were very bright.
Thus the star performer was very visible as long as he stood in it.
Soon, actors were competing to be in the easily seen limelight. And
so any location where many can see you today is called being in the
Karl Capek, a Czech playwright was a pioneer in science fiction. He wrote a play during WWI called "R.U.R., which was a group of mechanized monsters revolting against their maker. The Czech term for work or drudgery was robota, and so Capek shortened his characters to be robots.
Axe to Grind
Benjamin Franklin published a lot of stories, one of which he was the central character. Franklin was approached by a stranger who stopped to admire the family grindstone. He asked to be shown how it worked and offered Ben Franklin an ax to demonstrate. Once his ax was sharp the stranger walked off laughing. Today "having an ax to grind" means that someone has a selfish or mean motive behind their actions. It also means to have a grudge or dispute with someone in which that person seeks some confrontation, justice or reciprocated action. This can be openly known or a hidden agenda, also.
|Jay Birds who ventured out of their rural
forests and into the urban areas often got confused. They often endangered
their lives walking anywhere where they wanted, including into traffic.
Sophisticated city people laughed at their erratic behavior. So, now
anyone who crosses the street in a reckless or illegal way is called
a Jay Walker (and sometimes fined).
No Spring Chicken
|New England chicken
farmers discovered that chickens born in the Spring bought better prices,
rather than old birds that had gone through the winter etc. Sometimes
farmers tried to sell the old birds as a new spring born chicken. Smart
buyers often complained that a tough fowl was "no spring chicken"
and so the term now is used to represent birds (and even people) past
their plump and tender years.
Break the Ice
|All cities that grew
as a result of being on rivers (for trade) suffered during bitter cold
times when the river froze. Even large ships got stuck, making
them icebound for weeks. Little small sturdy ships known as "icebreakers"
were develop to precede the ships breaking ice and making a path. This
was important for the ships to get the goods to market. And so every
boatman knew that in order to get down to business, you first had to
break the ice. Today it represents any sort of start to a project.
|This basically means
to score a victory without much work.
One version is with horse racing the jockey doesn't even have to lift his hands to guide his horse if he's way out in front. Another one is for boxing in which the opponent is a pushover and so the winner doesn't even have to raise his hands to protect himself.
Pass the Buck
|Anyone who avoids
making decisions or accepting responsibility is said to pass the buck.
This all starts from the old days of card playing in which piece of
buckshot is placed before someone who has the deal. The
dealer has a lot of responsibility on determining the game's format.
If a cautious player doesn't want to take on this responsibility, he's
allowed to "pass the buck" to the next player who will be
|In 1882 a Pecos, Texas
rancher offered $100 prizes for bronco riding, bulldogging and roping.
A promoter in 1916 suddenly decided to use the Spanish term for roundup
- 'rodeo' to sell tickets to the competition. As the popularity grew,
so has the prize money and the crowds.
Throw in the Towel
|In old boxing days many
bruised fighters couldn't get to their feet when the bell for the new
round began. Their managers new they could do nothing but give up since
they were took weak to continue. As a signal, one of them would toss
in an article used to soak up blood -- a towel or sponge.
Today's boxing regulations are meant to limit the brutality of the past.
But the saying today meaning when you are forced to give up of "throwing
in the towel" still remains.
|The first teensy weensy swimsuit known as
the "bikini" went on sale in 1947. But how did it get
its name? The male reaction to this was often described to be
like an atomic bomb. Since a year prior, 1946, the Marshall Islands
were used for the atomic bomb test. 167 natives were moved to
Rongerik under "Operation Crossroads" by William H.R. Blandy.
Later more commonly referred to as "Bikini Island Bomb Tests."
Since this skimpy swimsuit created about the same earth shattering reactions
as the bomb, it was explosively named the Bikini. After a few years,
it was no longer capitalized and became bikini to represent a fashion
style that showed a lot of skin, not necessarily for swimwear.
I.E. A bikini-style top.
|When you are totally
exhausted you are often say you are "bushed." The term
came from the Dutch settlers for the wilderness, but modified by the
English to "bush." Clearing away forests was hard work
and they often proclaimed after carving out a trail that they were bushed
(exhausted). Today the word means to be exhausted from anything
and not just physical outdoor labor.
Lock, Stock and Barrel
|In old days, a rifle
(or musket) had 3 major parts: A lock, a stock of wood and a metal barrel.
Each part was totally useless without the other one. They had
to all work together or well, you got nothing. But when they were
all in sync, what a BLAST! Thus, when a person chose to put everything
100% into an decision, action or commitment and not just half-heartedly,
he is said to be doing it "lock, stock and barrel."
Alternate origin: lock stock and barrel also referred to when you bought a farm. Lock meant the house , stock was all the animals and barrel was the rain barrel meaning all the trivial junk, so that it was absolutely everything at the time of sale that was on the land that was sold If the previous owner left something valuable behind it was yours (too bad for them) as it had all been sold lock stock and barrel.
Rub The Wrong Way
|This saying means
to deal with someone insensitively, whether on purpose or by accident.
The term goes back to colonial times and wide oak-board floors.
Once a week, servants had to wet-rub and then dry-rub these floors.
Seems simple? Well, if it wasn't done with the grain, it looked awful
because streaks were made. To the owner, this was worse than not
doing it at all! And a real embarrassment to any company that
came. So a servant was called clumsy or inept by their employer. Today
the term means anyone (floors or not) who irritates others by a clumsy
word or action.
To "Rub [someone] the wrong way" also refers to animals. Take
a cat for instance: if you rub it along the way its fur grows (head
to tail), it's fine, but if you rub it the wrong way (from tail to head),
it gets extraordinarily angry and irritated.
|Many years ago a heavy
cloth was created in Janua (modernly known as Genoa today) and shortened
to the term "jean." In 1495, King Henry VIII of England
bought 262 bolts it because it didn't wear out quickly and was very
prized. It remained its natural shade for years and years
until one day a batch was dyed blue and turned over to tailors.
For many years, the pants made from this fabric was for men only.
Only until women wearing pants became socially acceptable (around WWII?)
and later in the 50's and 60's have jeans become a fashion garment for
women as well as men. They are no longer worn for their durability,
since today mean blue jeans are promoted for being softer and even include
spandex for stretch blue jeans.
Spill the Beans
|In ancient Greece,
voting for membership into some of their organizations was done via
beans. White beans were dropped into a container who favored the
candidate and brown or black beans if you didn't. Apparently the
jar was not clear and (I assume) when you went to vote you kept your
hands folded so no one knew if you dropped a white or black bean?
Only the officials knew the actual vote results of black vs. white beans.
However....on a few occasions a clumsy voter would knock over the jar
and revealed all the beans! This is how the phrase got to refer to someone
who reveals the truth or hidden secrets.
Beat Around the Bush
|This comes from boar
hunting in which the noblemen hired workers to walk through the woods
beating the branches and making noises to get the animals to run towards
the hunters. Boars were dangerous animals with razor-sharp teeth
(you really did not want to meet one-to-one, esp. with no weapon).
So the unarmed workers workers avoided the dense undergrowth where the
boar might be and beat around it, rather than going into it. Thus,
this evasive technique was termed "beating around the bush"
and today represents anyone who avoids approaching anything directly.
|Along the lines of voting by dropping beans
into a jar (See above), many exclusive clubs voted on their new members
by dropping white or black balls into a hat or box. A white means
Yes and a black means No. After all the votes were cast, if a
candidate had so much as one more black ball than white, well he wasn't
accepted and the term "he got black balled" came into being.
Lay an Egg
|Unlike when a chicken
lays and egg and is praised for such a wonderful accomplishment, in
the human world that's not the case at all. The term goes back
to the game of Cricket in which "a duck's egg" if you had
no runs, because a ZERO looked like an EGG. So rather than saying
a team had no score, they would say, "They laid an egg." Today,
any type of failure in any adventure (sports or not) means to lay an
Red Letter Day
|Back in the old days,
calendars were only made (or seen) by monks and made by hand in monasteries
or convents. Scribes often emphasized days of Saints or other
important events by using a reddish ink made from ocher (a mineral of
oxide of iron). A quick look at the calendar instantly showed
all there red marks from the black, so that preparation or anticipation
of those days could be acted upon. Today, we consider a "red
letter day" as any important day to us in our lives such as birthdays,
weddings, anniversaries or the beginning of vacations or ending of school
years. Some even have them mark special emotional times such as first
dates, births of babies, pay raises, etc.
Old Stamping Ground
|The prairie chicken
was often observed by early settlers dancing around at dawn with their
fancy mating steps, making noises and strutting as part of their courtship
with the females. They were so intense on this, they actually
wore some areas of the ground bare! Soon, settlers could just
tell by looking at some bare land that it was the mating spots for those
frisky prairie chickens, and soon got called their "old stomping
grounds." Today the term is used both for areas when males
and females gather to meet each other, or for any place in which a group
of people just go to have fun and kick up their heels etc.
On Cloud Nine
|For some odd reason,
the number 9 has always been considered by mathematicians to have some
super power? Some say it goes back to the Holy Trinity since 3 x 3 =
9. And later in Victorian times, a person who was all dressed
up was said to be "dressed to the nines." So what does this
have to do with clouds?
It was believed that clouds existed on a successful level of layers, and the ultimate high layer was 9. So anyone who is suddenly super happy was said to be soaring in the clouds and naturally the level of the cloud they were assumed to be on was the highest...level 9. Today another way of saying you are very happy and even in some cases, in love, is to say that you are on cloud 9.
|To be a redneck isn't
because anger makes your neck red at all. The term comes from
the South, but it refers to anyone who works outdoors, especially in
the farm fields, where after a while all that sun exposure gives you
a very red neck (from bending over a lot in the fields). Since
many wore hats that sheltered their faces, that left them all with red
necks. After years of having sun-burned necks, skin just got darker,
reddish and more crusty. So the term today, although termed for
Southern farmers, can be another who works outdoors rather than in an
PS: Along this line, there is a term called a "farmer's tan" which means you have a sun tan from your elbows down, since being outdoors in a T-shirt covers the rest of your body. It's a common phrase in California to tease outsiders (esp. from the Midwest) that they have a "farmer's tan" when in California people pride themselves on having overall tans.
version is said that the term originated in the coal mines of Kentucky
and West Virginia at The Battle of Blair Mountain, which was the largest
civil uprising in US history. In 1921 WVa miners clashed with
lawmen and hired hands of the coal companies when they tried to stop
the miners from forming a union. Approximately, 13,000 miners
with red bandanas tied around their necks (to identify them as a separate
group from the others) marched on Logan county. This uprising
helped showcase the conditions faced by the minors and helped shape
the way unions operated. It also turned union tactics into political
battles to get the law on the side of labor. All these miners
with red bandanas on their necks is said to be the origin of "red
is also a different version of the origin of this word from a Scottish
website. Since this is rather long, I'll just put the Link up:
|Biologist W.C. Allee
gained fame when he discovered the pecking order of hens, and the female's
habit of using her beak as a weapon among other females. The hens never
peck the male roosters. And yet the term today is often referred
to represent the verbal attacks females put upon males. Go figure!
|This phrase comes
from an old riddle often told in old rural country stores. The
question: How many blue beans does it take to make 7 white beans?
Do you know? If you don't then you are said to "not know
beans." The answer is: 7 blue make 7 white. Why? When you
peel 7 blue you get 7 white. The term today about "you don't
know beans" refers to anyone who doesn't know anything that should
be common sense or general knowledge.
|Illiteracy was common
in the old days and so when a person was asked to sign his name to a
document, he would put an "X" or a cross and it was perfectly
legal. Now, many times this was done under pressure and the party making
the "X" had no intention of observing the terms of the contract.
Oral lore stated that if a cross was doubled = one was written
over the other one, then the second one voided out the first.
The contract was then null. So a double-cross was often referred
to someone who promised in word or writing, but changed their minds,
or never even intended to obey the rules they agreed to.
|All companies that
work around the clock have a graveyard shift. It really
has nothing to do with graveyards or burial places. Actually,
any thick liquid was termed "gravy." So if you laughed
till you cried you were called "gravy-eyed." And lack
of sleep lead to bleary eyes, and sailors who had to stay up on deck
all night were often "gravy-eyed" from weariness. When
the term was said in pubs and other places on land, these people did
not quite get it. Because superstitions were so rampid in
those days, they assumed it had to do with graves, being dead tired,
etc. So the seafaring phrase go reformed by the landlubbers to
mean "graveyard shift."
The "Graveyard Shift" is actually tied to the term "Saved
by the Bell." First, to explain "Saved by the Bell":
at one point, being buried alive was a common occurrence, so some people
who were paranoid about such a fate were buried in special coffins that
had a rope to pull from the inside that attached to a bell above ground.
At night a guard was set to watch the graveyard and to listen for any
bells to ring, and thereby dig up the living person from underground,
saving them "by the bell." The guard that sat watch overnight
was said to work the "Graveyard Shift": the night shift at
|In 1748, the fourth
Earl of Sandwich was John Montagu who loved to gamble. Anytime
he could get a game in, he would. Since his time was limited,
and he couldn't formally eat, he told his servants to give him a slice
of roast beef between two pieces of bread, so he could eat at the table
(did not need utensils). He might not be the first to come up
with this, but he was the first to do it in public and often.
As a result, this concoction of meat between two slices of bread soon
became known as 'the sandwich.'
|The term goes back
to sailors who brought it to land. The stern of a boat is called the
poop. During strong winds and storms, smashed against it repeatedly.
Any ship's stern that showed damage from all of this was called "pooped"
and lucky to still be floating after days of battering waves.
So when the sailors got ashore, in their descriptive way they would
often say that they felt as tired and battered and as "pooped"
as their ship. People took hold of this phrase and soon used it
to describe themselves even when on land as being totally pooped out
when they were really tired, fatigued and exhausted from anything.
|The term comes from the days of notorious
pickpocket activities in London. They had their own language for
different pockets that were the style of the day. For example:
Jerve as a vest pocket. And Kick was a pocket on
the side in a pair of pants. And the Pratt was the back pocket.
Of all the pockets, the most difficult to pick was the KICK, because
it was close to the victim's leg and was always moving. After
a while, smart people discovered that the safest spot to keep your money
was in his "side kick" or side pocket of his pants.
Today the term now means a faithful partner or pet that is by ones side,
often even helpful and protective.
To go GaGa
|The French painter
Paul Gauguin is the source for this saying. Rumor has it that
admirers loved his painting but had problems pronouncing his name. So
they shortened their admiration to saying that they were just "Ga
Ga." Others claim that's just nonsense. And that the
word comes from the French origin for "fool" and so the word
represents the sounds a mindless person makes.
Alternate: The word 'gaga' originates from the French word 'gateux' (with a circumflex accent on the 'a'). 'Se gater' which means to spoil or go rotten. Soo 'gateux' or 'gaga' could translate as ' soft in the head' as in senile.
(Submitted by: Harry Globus)
|There are two versions
of where this word began in American culture. (1) One of the most notorious
criminals of the Barbary Coast was Muldoon, who had so much muscle he
was hard to arrest. The San Franciso newspaper led a campaign
to help clean up the town. But rather than printing his name they
put it in backwards = Noodlum. A bit obvious, the reported then
changed the N to H = Hoodlum. So every time this criminal's activities
were written up, it was as Hoodlum. Soon the name was synonymous
with crime and illegal activities. (2) Another theory is it is
a derivative of the German word 'huddellump' which means miserable fellow,
wretch, and scoundrel."
|Once upon a time,
some king came upon an inn and was served beef not quite like he'd ever
eaten before. He was also drinking alot with this meal and after a while
(being a bit drunk) he pulled out his sword and knighted the meat "Sir
Loin." And so in today's society a good sir loin steak
is sold in the fine restaurants only fit for kings! Or...the word smiths
feel that it really comes from the word 'surlonge' in French which means
beef just above the loin.
Dead as a Doornail
|Before the days of
the electric or mechanical doorbells, anyone coming to your house just
had to pound a metal knocker that was nailed to the front door.
Sometimes it took a lot of heavy smacks to get attention. This
meant that the nails holding this metal plate on the door got a lot
of wear, eventually having the life pounded out of it and it fell out.
Today anything that is totally withered or a failed project or situation
that is hopeless is considered to be as dead as a doornail.
Alternate origin: Nails were in short
supply and high demand in colonial times. People would go out in the
night and steal the nails from their neighbors doors. To prevent this
from happening, the ends of the nails inside, were bent and hammered
down to prevent them from being pulled out, from the outside. The nail
was said to be dead and the act was deadening the nail. It could not
be removed and all other uses were of that nail were eliminated....i.e.
the nail was dead.
Nip it in the Bud
years ago that in order to produce good fruit, a plant had to have a
lot of buds snipped off. This improved garden produce, but was
disastrous to individual buds. It became proverbial that when
a bud was nipped off, it would definitely no longer produce any fruit.
Today the word is used to refer to a sudden halt in any plans or project
in which no further progress will result.
Bring Home The Bacon
|The term comes from
the prize money a contestant would win at many county fairs for catching
the greased pig. Since it was a pig that was the target, the winner
then "brought home the bacon" or the winnings. Today the term
is used to mean bringing home money that's earned by having done a difficult
task or after a lot of running around.
|Early jugglers altered
a Latin phrase used during Holy Communion. They took the word "hocus"
which means "here is the body..." and just formed a rhyming
word go to with it for their magical presentations resulting in "hocus-pocus."
The pocus added to it assumedly meant to play close attention to the
Alternate origin: In the Middle Ages, most people were illiterate and certainly didn't understand Latin, the language of the Catholic mass. During the Eucharist in the mass, the priest would turn away from the congregation and look at the cross, making his words hard to hear and/or understand. When he raised the host (bread), he uttered the words "Hoc est corpus mei......", or "This is my body....", in Latin. The congregation didn't understand the meaning of the words, but they did know that, somehow through some magic, these words turned the bread into the actual body of Christ, the fantastic magical event of transubstantiation. So, words that sounded like "hocus pocus" to the illiterate and uneducated masses would enable a magical and miraculous event to transpire, and, presumably, these words were a facilitator or enabler of a magical act or event. (Submitted by Jon Dill )
|Maggie Valley, North
Carolina is the Square Dance capital of the world. And the term
comes from the fact that many rookies who try to square dance end up
swinging their foot wildly, often digging into the shins of their partners
or other dancers. So naturally any dancing event that marks on
its participants became known as a shindig.
|The general store
often had a cracker barrel in which citizens of the town would gather
to play games, and tell stories. Often listeners did not crack
a smile at all. At other times, a lot of laughter was created.
If a teller of a tall tail evoked a lot of laughter it was like hitting
a bulls eye and so faces with cracked smiles mean "first class."
Today the term now signifies anything that isn't first class is well..."not
what it is cracked up to be."
Another version: "Cracked Up" also refers to a Civil War time makeup. At this time the makeup mostly consisted of beeswax, ladies had to partially melt the makeup beside the fire before applying it, and after application it would harden. If the lady laughed or smiled it would crack the makeup, and thereby look like her face was "Cracking Up."
(Submitted by Jade Tibbals)
Over a barrel
|Punishment in the
old days often meant that a person often deserved more than just tar
and feathers, and deserved a public whipping. In order to prevent
him from escaping during this whip lashing, he was tied over-turned
barrel (top body bent to the curve of the barrel while feet remained
on the ground.) Thus there was no way this person could escape
his punishment. Today the term "to have over a barrel" means
that someone is in a position in which there is just no way for them
to escape their punishment or whatever other dreadful outcome is coming
|In the old days the
pumping action of the heart was considered to be the seat of a person's
personality. Doctors knew little else about our circulatory system back
then. So figurative words often were attached to the heart regarding
people's personalities, like hard-hearted, soft-hearted, heavy-hearted,
light-hearted, and cold-hearted. Since love makes us all giddy,
often our hearts beat faster. So the term "swete hert"
meant a fast beating heart. The term slowly grew into the term "sweetheart"
and is today referred to as someone who makes your heart throb.
Wrong Side of the Bed
|We live in a
right-handed world, let's face it. In the ancient world,
the left-side of the body or anything "left" was considered
sinister, mysterious, dangerous or evil. So, innkeepers
pushed the left sides of the bed against the walls so that a guest HAD
to get up on the right side. Today, with queen and king side beds,
most people get up on either side and don't bother to think about it.
But the term today of "getting up on the wrong side of the bed"
refers to when someone is irritable or clumsy.
|Blockbuster||The origin is from
WWII and refers to a bomb that could level an entire block. When
the boys came home, the phrase caught on to represent anything that
made a real impact.
|Cheesecake||This is an old-fashion
phrase for nudity (or almost nude) women in photos or film. The phrase
comes from the fact that a woman's skin appears to be the same creamy
color as that of cream cheese.
|Double Take||It's a phrase from
the movie makers in which the director wants to take another look at
the scene in order to make sure it's like he wants it. The term caught
on in society to mean anything that deserves to be looked at twice,
or looked at more closely.
|Flip Side||Its origin goes back
to the days of music being put on records (remember those?). Each
record had one side that had the main recording (hit song) and then
there was always another song on the back, which often was completely
different than the front song. This song on the back became known as
the "flip side." In society it caught on as every argument
or situation can have something on the other side totally different
from what's being shown on the front.
|Green-eyed Monster||We all know it as
jealousy. But how? It goes back to the Shakespearean play, "Othello"
in Act III. Shakespeare used at cat's green eyes to represent
jealousy and referred to it as "the green-eyed monster" in
his play. The phrase just caught on.
|The Handwriting on the Wall||We know it today as
a sign of some upcoming doom. But the origin goes back to the bible
when Belshazzar, the successor to King Nebuchadnezzar got drunk one
night and drank from sacred vessels from the temple of Jerusalem.
Afterwards, it is said that a mysterious hand appeared and wrote 4 strange
words on the banquet room wall. Only Daniel (the prophet) could
interpret this writing, which he said was ominous. So, any warning today
is referred to "the handwriting on the wall."
|Pageant||In earlier times,
they lacked stages. So, biblical performances were held outdoors, using
wagons equipped with stages on them. These wagons were called
pageants. Soon, the name of the wagons that brought the entertainment
became the name of the entertainment itself.
|Prima Donna||This is an Italian
phrase that means "first lady" and is associated with the
lead singer in an opera. And, like all stars, they got special treatment
(and a lot of applause) which created a woman who was vain, temperamental,
fussy, etc. Soon, the phrase slipped into social talk to mean any woman
who is egotistical, and wanting special treatment.
|To Pull Strings||This is used today
to mean someone who has influence to make things happen. The term
goes back to a puppeteer, who everyone knew was the man behind-the-scenes
manipulating things that made the show happen.
|To be the Top Banana or Second Banana||The term goes back
to burlesque where the showgirls in the finale formed what appeared
to resemble a bunch of bananas. Of course the star was usually on center
top and was referred to "the top banana." In many vaudeville
comedy acts, the straight man to the comedian was often referred to
then as the "second banana." So, this banana ranking comes
from the theatre, not the jungle.
|Don Juan||It refers to a man
who is a real woman-chaser. The name is based on a real Spaniard
named Don Juan Ternoario, who is rumored to have had over 2, 594 mistresses.
Then for some reason, the man joined a monastery! (Probably to hide
from all the irritated boyfriends or husbands?) But, the monks didn't
like him and killed him.
|Put Up Your Dukes!||This is a challenge
to fight. But, the origin goes back to Frederick Augustus, the 2nd son
of King George III. Fred had many titles, one of which was Duke of York.
Because Fred loved to duel, fighters nicknamed their fists, "dukes
of York." The phrase then got shorted to just "dukes."
|A Freudian Slip||We all know that when
when slip and say something we didn't mean to say, is called a "Freudian
slip." This goes back to Dr. Sigmund Freud who seemed to find sexual
innuendos and overtones in everything. So, when he would interview people,
he was always going, "Ah!" as if they were suddenly revealing
something their mind was suppressing. Today, it refers to any slip of
the tongue, not just sexual.
|Hanky-Panky||Refers to anyone fooling
around, either sexual or some underhanded business deal, etc. The phrase
originates back to magicians who would wave hankies around to misdirect
the attention of the audience from what was really going on. Just like
magicians would rhyme words like "hocus pocus", the "panky"
got added to just make a rhyme.
|To Let Your Hair Down||Back in Napoleonic
days, the nobility of Paris were highly condemned if they appeared in
public without a hairdo that was pretty elaborate. This mean hours of
work and a lot of hairpins. It was only when they got home could they
take all those pins out and relax. Of course when the pins came out,
the hair fell down. Thus, letting your hair down soon became a phrase
to represent being relaxed.
|The Life of Riley||This is not just an
old television show from the 1950's. Back in the 1880's an Irish comic/singer
named Patrick Rooney created a song about Mr. Reilly, who imagined what
his life would be like if he hit it rich in California. The song describes
his wonderful life of leisure. Soon, many who heard it identified with
how nice it would be and would repeat the song, making the phrase represent
having a real easy life.
|Nicotine||Ambassador to Portugal,
Jean Nicot talked with sailors a lot. In 1560 he got some seeds from
these sailors that he planted. And, so the first tobacco plants in France
grew. When scientist later discovered that tobacco had a potent substance,
they named it nicotine after Jean Nicot.
|O.K.||When all know it means
that everything is fine. But, the phrase originated with President Martin
Van Buren, when he was running for his second term as president.
He was born in Kinderhook, NY. And his nickname was "Old
Kinderhook." So, his fans formed a campaign committee called the "Democratic
O.K. (old kinderhood) Club."The campaign slogan spread from then
|To Read Someone The Riot Act||It's real! Back in
1716, King George I of England issued a proclamation that if 12 or more
people engaged in a demonstration, his officers were told to read these
people this specific Act and send those rioters home. Only a few continued
once the edict was read because you could be sent to prison for life.
So, once this Riot Act got read, people calmed down rather quickly.
|A Bigwig||Normal British
citizens didn't even own a wig, let alone wear one. But, all lawyers
and members of court did. So, they stuck out in a crowd. Of course,
the judge was clearly obvious because he wore a large, powdered wig,
and also had a lot of authority. So, today, anyone who has any kind
of power or authority is called "a big wig."
|Chicken Feed||As far as farming
goes, chicken feed is the poor quality wheat or corn given to chickens.
Soon, city folks used the phrase in regards to our lower denominations
of coins. And, the phrase soon became really popular among riverboat
gamblers to mean a small amount of money, and it stuck.
|Goose Bumps||This is a phrase used
to describe visible small bumps on our skin because of fear, shivering,
etc. The phrase is based on the fact that geese were plucked of
their feathers every couple of months, leaving the birds pretty bare.
So, when they'd get a chill from the cold air, their skin would shrink
and create these large pimples.
|A gift horse in the mouth or straight from the horse's mouth||When you get information
straight from the horse's mouth, it means you are suppose to be getting
honest, correct information. The phrase comes from the old days
when determining how old a horse was was done by looking at his teeth.
So, before betting on a horse, people wanting to check its teeth to
see how old this horse was. Therefore, anyone who worked around the
horse (stable hand?) knew how old the horse was and could let the others
know. Therefore, the information was acquired, 'straight from the horse's
mouth' and not the owner of the horse.
On the other hand, if someone gave you a horse for free, it was considered rude to look in its mouth and check to see how old it was. Therefore, you were not to "look a gift horse in the mouth." Today, this means not to question the quality or motive a gift you get from someone.
|Lick Into Shape||The phrase means to
make something presentable; or, to take a problem and make it do-able.
The origin comes from bears. When bear cubs are born, apparently they
have no shape. So the mother and father lick the newborns into shape
with their tongues. I'm not sure if this is true or not, but this is
the source of the saying.
|Raining Cats and Dogs||A colorful expression
that means it is raining very hard, with lightning, thunder and probably
a lot of high winds. There are two ideas of how this phrase developed.
One is simple: A storm sounds a lot like cats and dogs fighting. The
other goes back to Norse mythology. It is believed that witches
caused storms and rode the winds in the shape of back cats. And, the
God of Storms is described in Norse Mythology being surrounded by wild
dogs and wolves. So, add the witchy cat-shaped winds and the wild dogs
and you get "it's raining cats and dogs."
|To smell a rat!||The saying means to
feel that someone or something is suspicious in nature. The source goes
back to the use of dogs in large mansions and palaces to warn of rats.
Apparently, it's believed that a dog who suddenly stirred could smell
a rat. (No one considered maybe the dog had a keen sense of hearing
too and could hear the scratching?) Anyway, whenever a dog suddenly
jerked from lying on the carpet or whatever, people would say that "he
smelled a rat." Soon, society used the phrase anytime someone got
|Wet Behind The Ears||This refers to someone
who has absolutely no knowledge or skill in some craft or job assignment.
It goes beyond being a beginner. It means to know zip, nada, nothing!
The origin is simple. I refers to newborn animals, who are wet from
the womb when born. They dry slowly and often behind their ears stays
wet the longest. Newborns are pretty helpless and know nothing, just
like someone who has to do something that they don't know how to do.
"Absent Without Official Leave" is the acronym for AWOL. This is a military term that filtered into civilian talk to mean anytime anyone just up and leaves without telling someone first, whether in written form or verbally.
|Bats in the Belfry||
A person who is a bit bewildered, confused, (even considered nuts or crazy) is said to have "bats in their belfry." The term goes back to the days when the tallest building in town was the church due to its tall bell tower and steeple. Because this wasn't enclosed, bats loved these towers; and, at night they'd fly all around swirling as if in confusion. Whenever someone was confused, the symbolism too shape of the bats flying all which way around the belfry.
|Bite The Bullet||
The phrase today means to just accept whatever situation you are in and push through it the best you can. I believe the kids today say to just "suck it up." Well, the phrase originates from the days of the Civil War in which battlefield doctors had little pain killers or alcohol. Sometimes, all they could do was to offer a solder a bullet to bit on while they did what they had to do (often painful) to deal with his injuries.
The phrase today means simply to be caught doing something wrong, usually while you are doing it so there's no doubt you are doing something wrong. In the old days, it simply meant to be caught with the red blood of an animal on your hands as a result of butchering an animal that didn't belong to you. According to the laws back then, just having freshly cut meat didn't make you guilty. You had to be caught with the fresh blood of the animal to be convicted.
|It's as easy as falling off a log||
When something requires no skill at all, it is said to be as easy as falling off a log. Well, we all know how easy it is to fall off a log, right? Apparently, back in the old logging days, when city folks saw the loggers walk on the logs while they were in the water, they thought it was pretty easy, until they tried it. Then PLUNK! It required no skill at all to fall off those logs. (The skill was staying on them!) This is how the phrase came to be.
|To be at the end of your rope||
Today it means that you have used up all possible resources, solutions, ideas, etc. in order to surmount a problem you have. It originated from the tethering of horses to eat (but not allowing them to run free). So, horse would eat in the area his rope allowed. When the horse ate all the grass that was easy, he then was stretching and eating in the area that was "at the end of his rope."
To GumUp the Works
Someone (or something) that suddenly stops a project from running smoothly is "gumming up the works." The phrase originates in old lumbering days when the men had to deal with the Sweet Gum tree. This is sap gummed up their saws. They hated that. But, they discovered that the gum was fun to chew. So, they'd go collecting it and as a result, oftentimes returned all sticky from head to foot. And, it was hard to wash off! So, a person was all gummed up and stuck (lacking freedom of movement.)
|To Make Things Hum||
Hmmmm! Hmmm! That's the happy sounds of cotton mills working! What you didn't want to hear was silence (when the machines broke down). So, it took a lot of mechanical skills and management wisdom to make the cotton mill hum with productivity. Later, the phrase "to make things hum" slipped into common language to represent anytime someone made a project run efficiently.
|Pull One's Leg||
London's street crime included thieves who had an elaborate scam to mug people. They'd work in pairs, with one person tripping another person (in an alley). Once they were on the ground, they'd strip them of their valuables. In the process of tripping, many times their pants were pulled also. Soon, this type of action that caused people to stumble was called, "pulling one's leg." Today, it isn't related to stealing. It has to do with tripping someone up mentally and making them look stupid or dumb. Thus, the only thing they might lose is their temper.
|To Rack One's Brains||
Tanners stretched leather out on racks, which later caught on in as an idea as a form of torture to stretch a person out and get information from him. Eventually, this method to get information became illegal; but, the phrase became known in society as an expression to trying to find some answer or solution that was mentally torturous on one's brain or mind.
|To Read Between the Lines||
Writing in code has been around for centuries. And, many rulers and military leaders did it. In fact, Charles I of England's papers were so coded that they didn't get understood until 1850. People couldn't understand any coded document soon figured out that the meaning wasn't in the lines that were readable, but the message was written in invisible ink between the lines showing. Soon, society just adapted the phrase "reading between the lines" to mean that any document had hidden information that wasn't obvious when reading what was seen on the paper and to analyze it better
|Sponge-off someone or to be a Sponge||
We all know that this means anyone who is very cheap and doesn't pay for things. The origin goes back to when sponges were used in Britain to clean the slates of chalkboards by scholars. They noticed how well they soaked up water. This then became associated with anyone who was a boozer in the taverns drinking a lot. These boozers usually had no money and begged for free drinks, money etc. from others. They soon were called sponges because they soaked up booze and money from others and never paid.
|Up To Snuff||
Today the phrase means anything or anyone who isn't up to some sort of standard of quality. The origin in a way goes back to that also. Snuff is tobacco. And, in the old days men carried around pouches of it, with spoons and graters. Soon, commercial mixes got into the mainstream and so the real connoisseurs of smoking prided themselves on being able to tell the real, pure grade snuff from the commercial stuff. Someone who couldn't tell the difference between pure quality tobacco and the mixture was said to be "not up to snuff."
Although the word isn't used a lot today, it was a few years ago. Basically it mean a big fuss over something in public, usually by political candidates. But, it could mean a new product on the market as well. The term comes from Ballyhooly, Ireland where the residents became well-known for arguing over everything to the degree as if the world depended on it. Soon, the British Parliament used Ballyhooly as a way of criticizing their arguments saying that they were as bad as Ballyhooly. Somehow, in America the "ly" got dropped and the term Ballyhoo became associated with exaggerated fuss over nothing.
We all know that getting the Blue Ribbon is getting the top honor. This goes back to when dyes were expensive. Blue dye was scarce and costly. So, if one wore blue, they were considered prominent in society. British Monarchs gave The Order of the Garter to its knights, which was a bright blue ribbon. In France, the society of the Holy Ghost gave blue scarves to honor their knights of the highest order. So, it just evolved in society that the top honor was to give a blue ribbon as a reward for being the best.
This is so common, most of us don't even think about its origin. We all know that a person's character simply means their ethics and moral conduct. But the origin goes back to when metal workers literally had an instrument called a "character" in which they'd mark things. This was usually a simple letter. Later on, Medieval courts would use this character to brand criminals not given a death sentence. They'd brand them with an "M" for murder, "A" for arson. As in book, "The Scarlet Letter" the "A" meant adultery. Today, branding someone's character is done verbally, and not literally. Sometimes, it's done erroneously also.
The origin goes back to the Chinese who worked on the Great Wall. It was noted that their foreman would yell "Gung Ho" and then they'd all get busy in unison. This phrase caught on with the Marines when General E. Carlson in WWII when he began using it. Soon it became a signal for enthusiastically working (together or single).
This term is associated with any place that will cheat you in some way (usually money). The phrase goes back to when Gypsies arrived in England around the 16th century. When someone was swindled by one of them, the phrase "I was gypted" was said. They called them Gypsies because they thought they came from Egypt (shorted to Gypt-sie) see? Some were honest, hard-working people. But, any business that they had was called a gyp joint. Later on, in some areas, the referenced came to be a "clip joint" instead because one lost their money to people who were not Gypsies.
|High Muckety-Muck||This is just
another way of defining the person on top, the most important person
or the one in authority. The source isn't exactly that meaning. It originates
from the Native American word "muck-a-muck"which meant a person
who has plenty to eat. In a tribe, it was usually the chief (and
his family) who had enough to eat. The settlers sort of messed up the
pronunciation as well as the meaning in translation apparently.
|Lunatic Fringe||It simply means a
person who is teetering on the edge of sanity. The origin is pretty
simple. It goes back to the Roman belief that the moon (Luna)
|Pipe Dream||Any idea that is really
unique or bizarre is called a "pipe dream" by those who think
it is pretty silly. The term originates from the use of opium by smoking
it through a pipe. It is said that opium produces a dream-like
state of mind, where things aren't realistic. (Whether these are
hallucinations or not is debatable.) So, smoking opium in a pipe
creates a "pipe dream" sensation.
|Scapegoat||On the Day of Atonement
(Hebrews) the priests would take a black goat as the representative
of all the sins of the people. During this ceremony he would lay the
sins of the people on the goat's head. Afterwards, the goat was let
go (escape). Later on, anyone who was made to take the blame for the
actions of someone else was called a "scapegoat" just like
the ceremonial goat did for the sins of the people.
|Spill The Beans||In today's society
it means to let a secret or private information be revealed. This is
based on an old voting system by the Greeks where they had a voting
bag. Members of the group would drop either a white bean (yes)
or a dark bean (no) into a bag to vote on a new member. When a clumsy
person accidentally dropped the bag, showing all the beans (votes) it
was said that he "spilled the beans" thus revealing the secret
votes to all.
|White Elephant||Today it means a gift
that you get that you either don't want, can't use, is ugly, but you
can't give it away and are stuck with it. The origin goes back to Siam
when white elephants were considered sacred. Royal families usually
took care of them. But, if this family got mad at a commoner, he would
give him a white elephant that he was forced to feed and take care of
(at his own expense) and couldn't get rid of because it was sacred.
Thus, the gift was really meant as a burden.
|The Bottom Dollar||To be down to your
bottom dollar, means to be down to your last finances. But, the origin
doesn't mean dollar bills, it means gold coins. The US in its early
days only minted about 8 million silver coins and 19 million gold coins.
So, most wealth wasn't in money but in raw materials. Therefore, a person's
wealth as a stack of coins wasn't very much and pretty noticeable. It
was obvious when he was down to his last dollar (silver or gold).
|Diddly-Squat||This is another
way of saying nothing! It can mean apathy (no opinions) or low monetary
value. The origin is from the carnival people who created the
word: Diddle-E-Squat to mean low-valued currency of nickels and dimes.
Maybe because the town folk didn't understand, and the prizes were rather
tacky, they brought the term into society to mean "worthless"
or to have "little value."
|To Go Haywire||Logically, this phrase
has to do with bailing hay. Back in 1828, Moses P. Bliss patented
a machine that bailed hay. It worked pretty good, but there were times
when the wire used on the machine would get stuck in the machine, wrap
around the horse's legs, etc. When the men cut it to untangle the mess,
it often snapped, causing injuries. The situation soon slipped into
social talk to represent anytime anything gets all messed up and can't
work properly (machines, projects, ideas etc.).
|Loophole||This is a phrase today
that means a way to get out of some contract. The origin goes back to
the Middle Ages and defending a castle. Up at the top, designers put
in small, oval windows that were tapered to be wider inside and narrower
from the outside. This made the window difficult to hit (from over the
moat) by the enemies, but a good spot to defend the castle from w/o
much chance of getting hurt themselves. The window was called the loophole
and later the term came to represent any opening that gave an advantage
to one side in an argument or contract.
|To Make Ends Meet||Today it often refers
to money and having the ability to stretch your income to pay all your
bills. The origin goes back to sailing ships with a lot of masts. Some
were attached by ropes that moved. Some were hung by ropes that were
permanent. When the lower ropes broke, the captain would tell the men
to pull the ropes together, splice them to get the ends to meet again,
pull and tug on the canvas, so that the masts would be productive
for sailing again.
|On the cuff or Off the cuff||As odd as this seems,
back in the old days most people weren't allowed credit. But, when someone
did borrow, the records were often kept on the shirt cuff of the lender.
When men traveled from town to town, the livery stableman often let
them put what they owed on credit. There was no formal contract. But,
it was written on the stable owner's cuff. So, guys who had debt owed
to stables in different towns were said to live "off the cuff."
Today, the phrase just means a casual business deal w/o formal, legal
documentation based on a man's word or trust only.
|To Paint The Town Red||Isn't it rather obvious
that the term goes back to red light districts in towns, because that
was the area where the men found most of their well...excitement?
;) Today, we refer to it as having a good time in a place,
period. And doesn't have to mean visiting prostitutes.
Pig in a poke
Let the Cat out of The Bag
|A poke is just a heavy,
thick bag attached to a stick in which pigs were carried to market.
Many times, a defective pig, or not even a pig at all was in the bag.
And, the sellers would offer a great "bargain" for the poke.
Why didn't the buyer take a peek inside first? Because pigs were hard
to catch once they got loose, the sellers often refused to let the buyers
take a peek before paying. So, many times, the buyers were cheated and
ended up paying for either a bad pig or not pig at all once they peeked
inside the bag they just bought. Later on, the phrase soon represented
anything purchased that seemed to be a good deal and was just a waste
Many times cats were put into the poke instead of a pig. When a buyer insisted on seeing what was inside the bag and found a cat instead of a pig, he confirmed that he was being cheated and the truth was revealed. Today, "to let the cat out of the bag" means to let secret or hidden information be revealed to others. It doesn't have to do with business, it could simply be telling what a Christmas present is.
|Slush Fund||Back in sailing days,
a ship's food supply was stored in a lot of salt pork. After frying
or boiling, a lot of fat (aka slush) was left over. Some of it
was used to grease timbers. But, they had LOTS of this stuff! So, a
lot was just put into storage. When they got back to port, they sold
it. (I'm not sure who buys this stuff and why?) Anyway, the money from
selling their slush was used to buy extras for the crew. Soon,
the term "slush fund" was used to represent money that was
taken from a normal budget and used for extras. More commonly, the extras
meant to pay bribes for corrupt purposes, etc.
|By the skin of your teeth||This is a phrase that
means to barely escape a disaster. But, we don't have skin on our teeth
(we have enamel). The origin is from the bible, the Book of Job 19:20
where Job says he's escaped by the skin of his teeth. And, as with a
lot of bible verses, they slip into everyday speech. This was one.
|Get the Sack||Today it means to
get laid-off, probably with severance pay and even an explanation? But,
in the old days, artisans came with their own tools for the job (usually
in a sack). When an employer wanted to fire someone, all he did was
hand him his sack and tell him to take his tools and go! No justification
was needed. Since the 17th century, the phrase has remained as an expression
of losing your job (whether fired or laid-off).
|Kick the Bucket||This is an expression
meaning death. The phase originates from slaughter houses. When
a cow was to be killed, a bucket was placed under him, while he was
being positioned on a hoist. Sometimes, while adjusting the hoist, it
made the animals legs jerk and he'd kick the bucket before he was killed.
|Slipshod||If something (or someone)
is slipshod, it means it's poor quality or sloppy. The terms has
to do with 15th century hardwood floors and shoes that were made w/o
heels or any fasteners to scratch these floors. Obviously, they were
more comfy than the normal shoes; and, soon people began to wear them
outside the house, and (Oh Lord!) even to church!! Such people were
considered sloppy in their appearance when they wore slippers on their
feet (aka slipshod).
|Ballpark Estimate||This is just a guess.
It goes back to early baseball days when the game was played in open
stadiums while the sun shined only. The newspapers wanted to know how
many came to the game. But, it was hard to get an exact count (and the
owners/managers didn't want to tell them, especially if it was low.)
So, they'd just give an estimate - give or take a few hundred.
Soon, any so-so count is called a "ballpark figure" or estimate.
|Barking Up the Wrong Tree||Settlers hunted raccoons,
possums and squirrels. Most hunting dogs would chase them up a tree
and then bark until their masters came and shot the animals. Sometimes,
the animal managed to sneak across to another tree w/o the dog seeing.
So, the dog would continue to bark up a tree that didn't have any prey.
Soon, the phrase became known in social circles to mean anyone who is
wrong about something and/or is being mislead.
|To Build a Fire Under Someone||We all know that mules
are pretty stubborn. Sometimes they just firmly set their legs and well...
So, farmers decided that building a small fire under the mule's belly
would get him moving. There's no proof this was really done a
lot by muleskinners. But, the idea and imagery was such that people
started using the phrase to mean "trying to get someone to move
or take some action."
|Hook, Line & Sinker||Many rookies of the
outdoors from the East went West. And, they were apparently pretty
gullible to stories that were told by fishermen about the big one that
got away with not only the hook, but the line and the sinker.
When the Eastern newbie believed it, he was joked as having fallen for
the fish tale, "hook, line and sinker." Later on, the
phrase came to mean in every day talk anyone who is just plain gullible
|On the Skids||Ramps and platforms
made of heavy logs were called skids, and were often used for rolling
logs and barrels; but, a lot of other things were rolled on them also.
Once you put something on these timbers (which were often not perfect
in circumference) and pushed, they'd roll down the hill, often out of
control. The term today simply means anything that is heading in a downward
direction, often out-of-control as well.
|Skid Row||We all know that skid
row is the part of a city where the lowlifes live. The term skids
are what I described above by the lumbermen. During the heyday
of lumbering, a lot of the workers lived in shacks all in a row near
the camp. This row was often compared to the skid of the camp.
As lumbering declined, the homes did also. Soon, "skid row"
represented any group of homes that were in poor condition and where
the lowlifes lived.
|Play Hookey||Isaak Walton was a
fisherman and author about it. He'd stress how important it was to get
that hook stuck in the fish's mouth. To do that you needed to do a sudden
jerk! Therefore, to "hook" got associated with the action
of "a jerk." Now, we get to schools. When the teacher's back
was turned, a kid would bolt off! If he got away with it, he'd hide
and not show up for role call. Soon, this represented a "jerk
of defiance" similar to like a jerk to hook on a fishing
pole. So, it was called "hookey" rather than simply
being defiant to mean skipping school.
|Talk Turkey||It means to talk clearly,
upfront, and directly. The rumor is that it started with the settlers
and the Indians over a discussion about who gets what after a hunting
expedition. Another is just based on old hunters calling turkey sounds
so skillfully that the birds came very clear of firing distance (upfront,
direct?) of them.
|Through the Grapevine||Information that is
received as unconfirmed and more like gossip is said to had come through
the grapevine. The phrase simply goes back to all the wires that
were strung between poles for Morse Code messages. During the
Civil War many messages were received either erroneously (due to transmission)
or on purpose to spread false gossip and thus unreliable no matter how
you looked at it.
|The Fifth Wheel||Long ago, there was
a device on cars that was a horizontal wheel attached to the front axle.
This wheel wasn't really used much, except maybe as support for a sharp
turn? But for the most part, it was useless. Being a fifth wheel soon
came to represent anyone who was without a partner in a group that was
paired-off. Just like the car had 4 wheels (2 pairs) and the 5th was
just along for the ride, so-to-speak!
|Lowbrows and Highbrows||It has nothing to
do with plucking your brows! The phrase has to do with phrenologists
in the early 19th century who claimed they could tell how intelligent
someone was by reading the lumps on their head, primarily the brow bones.
They claimed that the higher the brow bone, the smarter a person was. The lower the brow, the more of an idiot you were. Although phrenology isn't widely accepted as valid, the terms have come to mean that a lowbrow meant you were more ape-like, unrefined and stupid. And, a highbrow meant a refined, intelligent person.
|Poppycock||This is just
a name for barnyard excrements from chickens. The phrase first appeared
in stories written by Charles F. Brown (aka Artemis Ward) in the Cleveland
Plain Dealer in 1858. He used the phrase to described the political
talk he was hearing from candidates. It seemed to then catch on as a
way of expressing any talk that was worthless and stupid, whether political
|Putting on the Dog||After the Civil War,
lap dogs were a social status among the wealthy. Even today, look at
how Paris Hilton goes around with Tinkerbell all dressed
up? Back then, French Poodles were the symbol of wealth. So, anyone
who was being flashy was jokingly said to be "putting on the dog."
|A Stuffed Shirt||Anyone who is rather
immobile (rather in actions or in ideas) is said to be a stuffed shirt.
The phrase comes from scarecrows in which shirts and pants were stuffed
with hay, supported by a stiff pole to create a figure to scare away
pesky crows. It didn't really move, it just stood there.
|The Black List||To be blacklisted
means that you are banned or not allowed entrance. The list of
people who are banned is called "the black list." The name
goes back to British colleges where the deans had black leather bound
books with the names of boys who had disciplinary issues and misdeeds.
|Bribe||A piece of bread broken
from a loaf was called a 'bribe.' (Today we call it a slice or
a piece.) Itinerant holy men were often given a bribe. In return they
promised to pray for the person. Soon, people gave bribes to the holy
men more for the prayer factor and not just to be generous. Later on,
the word became connected to anything (money, property, etc.)
given in exchange for a favor by someone.
|Easy Street||The phrase appeared
in a 1902 novel called, "It's Up to You" where a prosperous
character in the book was said to easily walk up and down Easy Street.
Today, it simply means anyone who lives comfortably, no matter what
their address may be.
|Face The Music||When you've got some
unpleasant situation, you simply just grin and bear it and deal with
it. This is what a soldier who was being discharged dishonorably had
to do. He was given his walking papers, then forced to walk through
the ranks of his fellow comrades while instruments played some march
for ousted soldiers. The ritual wasn't fun, but the soldier had to deal
with it directly. Thus, he had to face the music (instruments playing)
and his fellow soldiers. This didn't mean he was guilty. Just
like today, someone might have to face a bad situation that he had no
|Left-handed Compliment||If a nobleman married
beneath himself, custom said that the man would give the bride his left
hand, rather than his right. This type of "left-handed wedding"
was not really worth much because the man's wife or children could never
gain his property. So, the marriage wasn't really valid, but just for
social appearances. By the 16th century, these were no longer performed.
But, society still referred to anything that on the surface appeared
to be something that it wasn't as "left-handed." Today, sometimes
a compliment is really meant as an insult (or a snide remark) and is
referred to as a left-handed compliment because it's not really sincere.
|Moron||The playwright, Moliere,
created a stupid character named Moron. When the American Association
for the Study of the Feeble Minded assembled in 1910, they said that
they didn't even have a name for the type of people they worked with.
So, someone suggested Moron after the character in the play. It stuck.
Someone who thinks that another person is not too bright will call them
Alternate origin from Lisa Slitas:
MORON really does mean an idiot, in ancient Greek!
It comes from the word μωρός which means someone whole can't
understand that much, and in contemporary Greek is the word μωρό
which means baby. So basically a moron is someone that has the mind of a baby.
|Nag||Anyone who constantly
annoys someone is called a nag. The origin has nothing to do with horses.
The source comes from the fact that rats gnawed away at things and you
could hear them constantly and couldn't stop it. The Germans took the
Scandinavian word for gnawing and turned it into nag. Soon, the word
turned into mean something that was constantly irritating. As far as
a person, it means someone who just gnaws at someone verbally.
|Nothing to be Sneezed At||The upper class years
ago had a craze for sneezing. All the elite would carry snuff
boxes with herbs, which made them sneeze when they put a pinch into
their noses. It was said that a good sneeze was a way to
clear one's mind. Soon, a sneeze was a way of expressing boredom. They'd
hear something and if they weren't impressed, they'd sneeze afterwards.
Therefore, if something wasn't sneezed at, it meant that it was important
or interesting. Today it simply means it is worth taking notice of.
|Shoot the Bull||It has nothing to
do with killing of bulls. The meaning has to do with talking. When a
group (of men mostly) get together and they just make a lot of loud
noise and talk senselessly it's called "a bull session."
To participate in such a discussion means "to shoot the bull."
The origin is simply based on how bulls act when they are in a pen.
They just have a tendency to snort and made loud noises at each other,
but none of it is threatening or means anything.
|Three Sheets to the wind||Basically it means
to be drunk. The origin comes from sailors. Ships sailed
best when all 4 sets of sails and all 4 masts were working. Sometimes,
the 4th set didn't work or didn't get set up in time. When a ship was
using 3 sets of sails and masts, the ship was in trouble if a gale hit
them. A tossing and turning ship was similar to a drunk. So, someone
who was drunk and walking rather wobbly soon was called "3 sheets
(sails) to the wind."
Alternate origin: On a boat, a "sheet" is a rope used to adjust the sails. An old square-rigged boat used one sheet to control each of the 4 corners of every sail. If a sail had 3 sheets (ropes) untied, it would merely flap around wildly in the wind and be useless.
(Submitted by: Paul Heitkemper)
|Go to Pot||When something is
said to "go to pot" it means it is declining or going downhill,
maybe even rotting. The phrase originated with roasts back in 15th century
England. Squires ate much more than was on the roasts (beef, pork, lamb)
and the leftovers (lesser good cuts of meat) were put in a pot
|Gravy Train||This is not about
drippy juice running all over. The phrase means anyone who has an easy
task or job that pays a lot but doesn't really work for it as "being
on the gravy train" or "riding the gravy train." The
phrase originates with (1) the fact that gravy is an automatic by-product
when you cook a roast. The juices to make gravy are just there when
the roast is done. (2) Train travel was very popular, esp. during the
1920's. Guys who worked on the railroad used the phrase "gravy
train" to mean any job they did that paid well, but wasn't hard.
The term then slipped into society.
|To Live High on The Hog or To Eat High on The Hog||The origin is pretty
simple. It comes from the fact that the best part of meat on a hog is
cut high on the thigh. The lesser quality meat comes from the lower
thigh (has lots of fat). So, the meaning of the phrase is basically
when you are eating (or living) the very best that is available to you;
and, are not having second best or lower quality.
|Fork Over or Fork It Over||"Fork over the
dough!" is often heard on old 1940's gangster movies. The term
originates from England where peasants had to pay their landlords (Noblemen)
rent in silver. When they didn't have any silver, then they had to pay
their rent from their crops. Shrewd rent collectors would decrease the
market value of the crops to get more. In the meantime, the peasant
was paying his rent via his pitchfork as he shoveled his crop into a
wagon and grumbled. Rather than a pitchfork, today we just
use our hands and "hand over" whatever is asked.
|Gibberish||Sounds or words that
can't be understood are said to be gibberish. Back in England, people
any foreigner with dark hair and olive skin was assumed to be from Egypt
and were nicknamed, "Gypts." Later the word became "Gypsies."
Their talk wasn't very understandable to the British so they would say
they were talking "gibberish" (the "g" is pronounced
like a "j"). Other phrases used to describe their talk was "gibber"
and then "jabber."
|To Go Off Half-Cocked||The origin has nothing
to do with roosters with their heads cut off. It has to do with
guns. Muskets were rather clumsy to load and took time. And, they
wouldn't fire until they were cocked. To save time (but to still
be safe) hunters would load their muskets but keep them only half-cocked
until ready. However, they'd be some real hyper guys who forgot about
their guns and just fired when they saw their game! Of course the gun
wouldn't fire when it was only half-cocked. The phrase then slipped
into society to mean anyone who was trying to do something without first
checking that everything was in order for the project.
|To Keep A Stiff Upper Lip||The phrase means to
show no emotion in times of great emotional distress, or to have a lot
of self-control. The origin is pretty simple. It has to do with British
soldiers and their mustaches. Even when trimmed and waxed, moustaches
sort of moved when standing at attention. This was considered undisciplined!
So, a soldier was ordered to control his mustache's movements and keep
a stiff upper lip!
|On the House||"The drinks are
on the house!" We all have heard this in a bar. The origin
actually comes from British pubs, where the owner would invite their
customers to taste their stock (pubs made their own beer back then.)
Their hope was to give them a desire to have more and create sales.
Today, anything that is given free (whether by a business or a person)
is said to be "on the house."
|To Put The Screws To||To pressure someone
in order to get something out of them (information, money, etc.) is
what it means. The term originates back to a method of torture called
thumbscrews where jailers would slowly tighten the screws and create
a lot of pain until the prisoner confessed or gave him the information
they wanted. Examples of thumbscrew torture are seen in some museums
today. But, they are no longer used.
|Rigmarole||Edward I of England
forced all noblemen to sign their allegiance to him. This list of those
that did was called a "ragman's roll." Once the list
was done, couriers were sent all over to publicly read this list. Well,
doing this over and over was a bit tiring. So, at times the speech
probably got muffled and hard to understand by those listening.
So, the incoherency of hearing this list was called "the ragman's
roll" which slurred turned into "rigmarole." And,
the word eventually got used in society to mean a slurring of a lot
of words that couldn't be understood, whether a list or just speech.
|Skeleton in The Closet||Back in the 1800's,
doctors had a real problem getting dead bodies in order to study them.
So, a doctor probably only got to get one in his entire life. Because
of that, he treasured it. But, society frowned on just hanging these
things around. So, the doctor usually kept it in his closet. However,
many of his patients probably just assumed he had one hidden away. So,
the phrase soon came to be used for anything (rather shocking)
that was hidden away from general public knowledge.
|Stigmatize||A stigma was a branding
iron in Britain. For criminals that weren't given the death penalty,
they were branded with their crime on their foreheads.
For example: "A" meant adultery "T" was for thief. So, to put this label on a person with a stigma was to stigmatize them. Later on, society used the word when it verbally would label someone, causing disgrace to that person, whether it was accurate or not.
|Stool Pigeon||This is not
about pigeons in the park sitting on stools. The origin goes back to
when pigeons were eaten as a good meat source. In order to get
one, many hunters took a tame pigeon, tied it to a stool in order to
attract the wild pigeons to shoot at. Because the pigeon that was tied
to the stool was used to trap the other birds, the name "stool
pigeon" soon was used to represent anyone to tells (betrays) on
|Hogwash||Two origins: First,
male pigs are called swines. When they are castrated they are called
hogs. The castration process required that the hogs be washed afterwards.
The water was tossed out as worthless.
Or....it's just the name of the swill fed to swines which really has no nutritional value at all. Today, if something is said to be hogwash, it just means talk that is stupid, invalid or illogical. In other words, it has about as much value as the nutrition in hogwash.
|Posh||It means elegant in
today's chat. But, the origin is really a sailing acronym. Port.
Out. Starboard. Home. Portside rooms were most liked. Starboard
quarters were the most expensive (not facing the sun and less hot when
heading home.) The 1952 New Yorker magazine first
used the acronym to describe such a room.
|Pull Up Stakes||When you leave a place
where you've been and go to a new spot, you are said to "pull up
stakes." The origin goes back to homesteaders, were stakes were
put in the ground to mark survey lines. But, sneaky settlers would go
out at night and move the stakes of other people to their benefit.
|Tell It To The Marines!||When someone tries
to tell you a far out tale that you are not going to fall for, you usually
tell them to "Go tell it to the Marines." Why?
The origin goes back to 1800's when British sailors (professionals)
thought the marines were greenhorns. Apparently, the British sailors
were told some outlandish tale, they'd tell the person to go tell it
to the marines, who were gullible. So, it has nothing to do with the
U.S. Marine Corp. It has to do with sailing and mariners.
|Clean As A Whistle||A whistle (wood) has
to be clean to make a good, pure sound. Any little particles in it,
will cause it to sound funny. A brand new whistle is the cleanest
and best! So, when someone is said to be clean as a whistle, it simple
means he's got no imperfections or is not guilty.
Prime Minister of England wrote in his novel, Coningsby
in which he has the phrase "the most fishy thing I ever saw."
to describe a suspicious political deal. He observed that both
fish and politicians could be slippery. Today, if something is
said to be fishy, it means there is something suspicious about it.
|Fit As A Fiddle||When one is in good
health, they are said to be fit as a fiddle. The origin is simple. We
all know that when a fiddle's strings are not taunt enough or if the
fiddle is warped, you don't get a good sound. Only a fiddle that
was in top shape was good enough to be heard by an audience.
|Flak||It just means to be
criticized or to be blamed. The term originates from WWI and a
German gun called a Fliegerabwehrkanone. The gun just shot bullets
to high-altitudes at our aircraft like crazy! The pilots shortened
the name of this annoying gun to "flak." And, therefore to
be the target of flying bullets meant to be "taking some flak."
Later on, society changed the bullets to verbal criticism, when someone
had to take flak.
|Narrow-minded||The phrase was created
by Ben Johnson in his book, The Staple of the News in 1625.
In it he describes a prejudiced person whose thoughts were dwelling
all in lane. He then used the phrase "narrow-minded."
Soon, the sophisticated people took on this phrase to mean anyone who seemed to have a limited view on something.
|Pull In Your Horns||The phrase means to
back off, but it has nothing to do with bulls. The origin has
to do with the fact that snails will pull in their horns and hide inside
their shells when they want no activity.
|Sleazy||Years ago, there was
a linen cloth that didn't hold up well sold in the German Silesian area
and purchased by London merchants and sold for a very low price to buyers.
Soon, they realized that this cloth didn't really hold up and they called
it "Sleasie." The name soon became synonymous with anything
that was of low-quality, didn't hold up, was grungy-looking or inferior.
|Called on The Carpet||When you are called
on the carpet it means that you are being scolded. The origin
goes back to earlier times when carpeting was extremely rare.
Many companies had only one office that was carpeted and that was usually
the boss's office! A worker who the boss wanted to talk to (usually
bad news) was called into his carpeted office. Thus, the phrase grew
to mean anytime someone in authority wants to scold you, whether a boss,
or someone else.
|Gimmick||Anything that is used
to hook someone into a transaction (whether honest or not) is called
a gimmick. The word originates from the carnival where conmen or grifters
would compete for attention with the public. The little prize
that you won was called a gimcrack. A little hidden control that
would stop a wheel when the carnie wanted was called a gimmick.
So, eventually the gimmick controlled what gimcrack someone got.
|Panic Button||This is a real button!
B-24 and B-17 bomber planes had panic buttons! When the pilot
hit it, a bell sounded that could be heard throughout the plane. This
told the crew to stop what they were doing and get ready to jump out
of the plane because it was damaged to much to fly anymore. When the
phrase got moved into civilian life, it was meant as a warning (written
or oral) for fast action, whether a situation might be dangerous, illegal
|Wisdom Teeth||Why are our third
molars called wisdom teeth? In ancient Greece they believed that no
child would become a man until he got his 3rd molars. Because this rule
was made by adults, they were considered smarter than kids. And, since
molars became a signifier for a rite of passage into adulthood, this
meant wisdom came along with the teeth.
|Hell on Wheels||Primarily this is used
today to mean a really reckless driver. But the origin goes back to
the days of the wild West and has nothing to do with cars. When the
transcontinental railroad got started, there was a lot of open land
between towns. Opportunists after the money of those laboring on working
on the railroad in these open spaces, simply rented flatcars and
turned them into mobile brothels and gambling casinos. Religious
zealots considered such activities the work of the devil and anyone
who participated doomed for hell. So, these flatcars with prostitutes,
gambling, drinking etc. were called hell on wheels. Other meanings
today can be as a compliment that someone is very energetic, a real
go-getter, or just very fast-moving.
|Know The Ropes||Anyone who knows what
they're doing is said to know the ropes. The origin goes back to sailing
where sailing ships with all those sails and masts also had a lot of
ropes, which were confusing to a new hire. It took a while to learn
how to handle the ship, its sails and thus its ropes. So, old
sailors taught the new ones.
|True Blue||Dyes for cloth came
from berries, flowers and bark mostly. The color blue was particularly
rare and if it could be done, it often faded. In Coventry, England
they discovered a formula that made a blue dye color that didn't fade
after several washings. This color soon was called "true
blue." For years, this true blue was the best color dye there
was of all the dyes. Later on, the phrase came to represent honesty,
reliability, faithfulness whether from a person or pet.
is the end of the anchor line that is suppose to be tied the ship.
If you forgot to tie it down, your entire anchor would be lost overboard.
Thus, you would have "met the bitter end.
(Submitted by: Paul Heitkemper)
|Cold Enough to Freeze The Balls Off A Brass Monkey||On a
ship, they'd stack their cannon balls in a pyramid shape. The
base where they'd stack them was made of brass. This base was
called a "monkey." When it got cold, the brass base contract,
causing the stacked balls to fall off their base.
(Submitted by: Paul Heitkemper)
|To Show Your True Colors||Warships
often carried flags from many countries in order to elude or fool their
enemies. The rules of warfare stated that ships were to hoist their
true national ensigns before firing. So, someone who "shows
his true colors" is acting like a warship that hailed another ship
by falsely flying one flag; but, then as soon as they got within firing
range, hoisted their real flag!
(Submitted by: Paul Heitkemper)
|To Get The Lead Out||It means to work or move faster.
When car racing became popular Bondo hadn't been invented yet. When
cars needed body work, lead was used to patch and repair holes in the
body. Lead was very heavy and added weight to the car, thus making it
drive slower in races. It was said that if you could get all the lead
out of your car it would go faster.
(Submitted by: Amanda Hurst)
|To Go The Whole 9 Yards||This term
comes from WWII era where a fighter pilots chain of ammo was 27 feet
long = 9 yards. So, when the pilot unloaded all of his ammo on the target,
he said " I gave it the whole 9 yards" meaning..." I
gave it all I had"
(Submitted by: Joe Horrigan)
There is also another version to the origin of this phrase based on making a Scottish kilt, which basically takes 9 yards if it's a quality kilt. The Link for the entire story is here: http://www.kilts-n-stuff.com/Celtic_History/great_kilt.html
For more word fun, visit our other pages:
"Why You Say It" by Webb Garrison
Rutledge Hill Press © 1992
Note: There are
600+ words in this book.
I gave you those I found interesting and useful.
I also reworded a lot of the answers to shorten them down.
My goal is to stir your interest to learn more.
Buy the book to know more about the other words and their backgrounds.
Also some visitors have written me with their input on some of the origins!
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