Pam Webb

a writer's journey as a reader

DOWOs: the “A” list


Having expended all the interesting expressions found in Why We Say, and not wanting to disappoint fans, I have found another source for expressions origins, which is appropriately titled Dictionary of Word Origins: A History of the Words, Expressions, and Cliches We Use by Jordan Almond. For posting purposes DOWO shall suffice.

I have been merrily marking choice entries to share. Look for new DOWOs around the 15th of each month.

Let’s start off with a few “A” list entries:

Why does “A-1” mean the very best?

London Marine insurance firms created a registry of ships and their cargo designating the condition through alpha/numeric sequence. An “A” rating meant the ship was perfect, and a “1” meant the cargo was perfect.

So if you are “A 1” it might be safe to say you are ship shape [you will just have to wait patiently for that reference].

What is meant if something or someone is found to be “above board?”

Dishonest gamblers and magicians (not that they are considered dishonest) often create their tricks or sleight of hand out of sight underneath the table or board. What can’t be seen can’t be trusted, which means if all is performed out in the open it is “above board.”

Performing his card tricks in front of the appreciative crowd, the magician was flushed with his success of dazzling them all with his above board feats of card sharpery.

What is an “Adam’s apple?”

Going back to the Garden of Eden we find Eve offering Adam fruit, which is traditionally thought to be an apple. Maybe being caught by God snacking where they weren’t supposed to caused Adam to choke on his apple bite, thus that bit of stuck fruit is referenced as “Adam’s apple.”

So did Eve swallow hers first or did she not take a bite? Hmm…

Why does “alcohol” mean “spirits?”

Actually “alcohol” means “eye paint.” Both Egyptians and Arabians prepared a black powder to paint eyelids which in Arabic is called al koh’l. Eventually the process of extracting the essence of product from the vine through a charcoal filter became known as “alcohol.”

“Here’s looking at you, kid.”

“I’ll drink to that.”

What is meant by “running amuck?”

This has nothing to do with gallivanting around in a mud puddle. In Malay, where the phrase originated, it meant someone under the influence of opium or other stimulants would become so excited they would rush around in a dagger-led frenzy stabbing people and yelling “Amoq! Amoq!” or “Kill! Kill!!”

I, for one, will think twice before attributing this description. Especially to emus.

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9 thoughts on “DOWOs: the “A” list

  1. A fascinating run-down of expressions, whose origins you think you know, but don’t. Running amok is my favourite here.

  2. Wow! This is fascinating! 🙂 A-1 is also a steak sauce here in American! LOL!

  3. I think I need this book.

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