Pam Webb

a writer's journey as a reader

Archive for the category “everyday expressions”

How Cliché: A Look


As a writing teacher I wince whenever my students add in “The author paints a picture…” *Sigh* I remind my students to strive for originality. I really feel for the essay readers since I only have thirty offenders and they must read hundreds of cliché-ridden essays.

Previous posts dealt with those everyday expressions that we have little idea what they mean through the monthly column of “Why We Say.” It ran its course and now it’s off to another dictionary of expression use: Have a Nice Day–No Problem by Christine Ammer.

Ammer scrutinizes over 3,000 sayings that have been used, and overused, to become relegated as cliché. She informs reads of the origin and whether the expression is obsolete or still acceptable. Considering the book is copyrighted in 1992, current use could be questionable, and there are no doubt new clichés that could be entered. There is also the consideration that not all clichés are questionable, and are actually appropriate, if not useful, to make a point. One person’s cliché, then, could be another’s coup de grace (to paraphrase a cliché).

We start in the “A” section:

Today's News, Entertainment, Video, Ecards and more at Someecards. |  someecards.com | Innocence quotes, Funny confessions, Absence makes the heart  grow fonder
Some truths must be faced

Absence makes the heart grow fonder: separation can create a longing
The first line in an anonymous poem published in 1602 it then became the last line of a song by T. Haynes Bayly, “The Isle of Beauty,” in 1850. It has since been said and resaid. The opposite expression would be “Familiarity breeds contempt.”

Achilles’ heel: a person’s weak spot.
Go back to Greek myths to find where the mother of the great warrior Achilles wanted to protect him. She held her baby boy by the heel and dipped him in the River Styx to supposedly make him invincible. However, during the battle of Troy, Paris, Hector’s brother, shot Achilles in the heel and brought him down to his death. Still current.

The Acid Test: a means of establishing the truth or validity of someone or something.
This comes from the practice of determining true gold by applying nitric and hydrochloric acid, which dissolves the metal. It became a figurative term and is still current.

Actions speak louder than words: what a person does is more telling than what is said.
A proverb stemming from ancient Greek and other cultures, it still applies aptly to today.

Add insult to injury: increasing harm caused.
There is a Greek fable in which a bald man goes to smack a fly that landed on his head. He misses, which incites the fly to ponder what the man will do with the insult added to the injury. Well-used cliché.

Afraid of ones own shadow – Mystery of Existence
Mickey in the Haunted House (1929)

Afraid of your shadow: extremely timid.
This expression has been stated by Sir Thomas More as, “Who may lette her feare her owne shadowe,” although it can be traced back to Plato.

(To go) against the grain: going in the wrong direction of the natural wood fibers.
While the actual meaning applies to wood, this expression has evolved to mean more towards something becoming an irritant. Shakespeare stated this expression eloquently in Coriolanus, “Preoccupied with what you rather must do than what you should, made you against the grain to voice him consul.” Dickens picked up the phrase and placed it in Edwin Drood–it might have be a cliché by then.

All in a day’s work: part of what one does for a living–expected.
This expression is found in the 18th century and was used figuratively and literally, as it is now.

All over but the shouting: the outcome is determined, but it hasn’t happened yet.
Thought to have originated in the 19th century as a phrase found in sporting events, yet it applies to other events as well and is used today.

This depends on one’s perspective–and what tactic is applied

All’s fair in love and war: all and any tactic is appropriate.
Found in some form from Chaucer to Maxwell Anderson and has been paraphrased to suit occasions as in “All’s fair in love and war and politics.”

While some of these expressions could be considered everyday expressions or idioms or proverbs, others are allusions, and a couple are metaphors. Be they cliché? Chime in. The Acid Test is if upon hearing the saying you grit your teeth since its use goes against the grain to hear them used.

More “A” explorations next month. We are far from over, so don’t be shouting.

Why We Say: from Villain to Windfall


Villains are the bad guys, right? During medieval times when manor houses were kept by feudal lords villains referred to “one attached to the villa” or the manor house. Now a lord, the one who owns the manor house would or should be considered a good guy, right? Wealthy, taking part in civic responsibilities, watching over the land, helping the poor and needy. Apparently not all lords were good guys and villain took on the meaning of bad guy.

Villain - Wikipedia
“Mwah ha ha”

Go to a library and there will be volumes of books just waiting to be read. By why call them volumes? In ancient times books were written on sheets of paper and then rolled up, much like a window shade is rolled up. Ah–“volume” is derived from the Latin volvere meaning “to roll up.” Next time you are feeling the need to read roll up with a volume in your favorite reading spot.

Volume (bibliography) - Wikipedia
Books? Volumes (go for the erudite)

Feeling the last attempt to succeed was a wash out? Thank the nineteenth century British soldiers for this term alluding to failure. As the soldiers practiced their marksmanship by shooting at targets, bad shots were erased by painting over the targets with whitewash. A “wash out” took on the meaning of failure or disappointment.

GAMO PAPER TARGETS, 100 PACK - Walmart.com - Walmart.com
Sometimes our best shot needs a redo

No one wants to be the wet blanket, especially at a party. But why a wet blanket? Well, a wet blanket puts out a fire and a person who is not into the fun zone essentially puts out the good times at a gathering.

More 100 Wet blanket Synonyms. Similar words for Wet blanket.
Wet Blanket goes by other terms, too

Ever go on a wild goose chase? There is no real winner, but it was once considered a game. Riders would follow the lead rider with all the riders following like geese in flight. The leader set the pace and each rider had to follow and repeat the rider’s actions accurately. The game was a chase with no winner which ends up as a wild run with no true outcome.

A Wild Goose Chase!: Morris, Lynne, Morris, Lynne: 9781953177056:  Amazon.com: Books
No doubt there are plenty of variations

Villains, wash outs, wild goose chases–time for a positive saying. How about receiving an unexpected bit of good fortune, such as a windfall? In Old English days people were required to leave the forest timber for the Royal Navy; however, if any trees were felled by the wind they could gather up the storm’s leavings. There you go–bad weather can bring good tidings.

windfall - definition and meaning
When the wind falls a tree does someone yell “timber?”

Which sayings were a surprise to you in their original form?

Why We Say: from Spitting Image to


As we close up the “S” section of Why We Say certain phrases there will be found some interesting sayings to explore.

Spitting Image: When someone says, “He’s the spittin’ image of…” there is an understanding the reference is the two people are very similar in appearance. In fact, there is such a remblance that their “spit” is alike. This might stem from how sons wanting to resemble their fathers would act like them, right down to “spittin'” like Dad.

Spruce Up: To “spruce up” indicates someone is changing their clothes, their appearance for the better. “Spruce” means “like the Prussians,” which comes from the French word for Prussia, Prusse.” To “spruce up” then, is to dress like a Prussian.

Hmm, shall we spruce up a little before heading out on the town?

Stamping Ground: Sometimes known as “stomping ground,” the term refers to a known, familiar area, where people congregate. In actuality, animals, such as deer, that gather in familiar areas, do so often enough to leave the imprints of their stamping hooves, creating a stamping or stomping ground.

Just hanging out, deer…

Steal One’s Thunder: Nope, this is not about Thor or his hammer. This is about Dennis the playwright, who in 1700 invented a machine that duplicated the sound of thunder. This was no doubt handy for plays needing some celestial angst. Unfortunately, the machine proved so successful that others coveted it, essentially “stealing his thunder.” Today, taking one’s due away is like taking away their ability to make some noise about themselves. Just ask Thor about when Loki took his thunder away.

Dude, don’t mess with my hammer.

Stickler: Familiar with Rabbit from Winnie-the-Pooh and how he is a bit of a fussbudget about getting it all exactly right? He would be considered a stickler. In Middle English stightlen means “to set in order.” Sticklers had the role of making sure all was set to rights at duels, that the rules were followed. Today, someone who is determined to make sure all is as it should be is a “stickler” for rules.

Stogie: Cigars, like them or despise them have come a long way from their first form. Stogies are from the Conestoga wagon, built in the Conestoga valley in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania. The wagon drivers would roll up tobacco leaves and roll them up to smoke when on long trips. Conestoga is a bit of a mouthful, so it became shortened to “stogie.”

Stumped: Can’t figure it out? Don’t have an answer? You might be stumped. If you are stumped, you are outwitted. If you are playing cricket you would be the pitcher having succeeded in hitting the wicket or “stump,” thus outwitting the batter.

Outwitting the stump, is rather cricket…

Well, any surprises?

Why We Say: from Pleased as Punch to Rule of Thumb


As we progress through our sayings and expressions it becomes clear that some of these truly make sense and others are needing to be shelved forever in the vault of forgotten. For example:

Pleased as Punch: Punch and Judy shows were once upon a time (supposedly) funny little puppet theatres where Punch, the male protagonist, after a bit of schtick ends up whacking Judy, the female lead with a stick and felt quite pleased about the outcome. Umm, not politically, socially, ethically correct. Then again, some have problems with Bugs Bunny humor, but we don’t say Pleased as a Bunny, so we won’t go there.

Point Blank: the center of a French target was once white or blanc. In order to hit the bullseye a person had aim directly at the target, so to hit the “point blanc” one had to be direct without missing or be right in front of the target in order to hit the coveted mid mark.

Pop Goes the Weasel: not the most popular song these days, but perhaps the line “That’s the way the money goes,
Pop goes the weasel
will ring a bell. I remember my jack-in-the box used to play that tune and then “POP” out came Jack, usually surprising us and eliciting a shriek of laughter. The weasel in these case is not the chicken rustler critter but it is the slang for pocketbook. Then again if you listen to the song, the critter does take precedence over the pocketbook. It is a strange little ditty.

Anyone know this tune?

Pulling One’s Leg: This one makes sense. In order to trip someone up, a person might pull on their trouser or actual leg to see them stumble. This is supposed to be hilarious. Causing harm to others is traditionally funny. See the above for how funny Punch and Judy shows are.

Quack: Why are medical practitioners of dubious ability referred to as “quacks”? Not because a person is referring to their remedies as being “ducky” or wonderful in a sarcastic way, it’s a reference to the Dutch word kwakzalver which refers to salves. “Quack” is an abbreviation and also refers to the noise a person makes touting the benefits loudly, just as a duck makes a big noise for its small size.

Rhyme or Reason: If something does not make sense, the saying, “There is no rhyme or reason” might pop up. This refers to how poems, even though they might always be clear in meaning will most likely have rhyme or at least some meaning be derived from studying it. To lack rhyme or reason means the situation is fairly confusing. My AP students will undoubtedly relate to this saying when we get to our poetry unit.

Rule of Thumb: If measuring comes into the conversation and someone mentions “rule of thumb” then be aware that the measurement refers to the thumb’s first joint which is supposed to be an inch. I don’t know about you, but that surprised me–now I want to start measuring thumb joints.

A Better "Rule of Thumb" For Insurance? - The Free Financial Advisor
Are all thumb joints equal?

That leads up up to the “S” category and soon we will be through with Jordan Almond’s Dictionary of Word Origins. If you have enjoyed this monthly feature, let me know in the comments and I will scout out another book and keep plying your brains with unnecessary but interesting trivia of why we say why we say.

Why We Say: From the Real McCoy to Getting Called on the Carpet


Not this McCoy–but the doc is considered a fighter

The real McCoy: When someone announces that someone or something is the “real McCoy” they are not referring to the curmudgeonly doctor from Star Trek’s Enterprise. The real, real McCoy goes back to a prize fighter of that name. The story goes that the fighter was being heckled by a bystander. McCoy did not engage with the man, due to his knockout ability, and those standing around told the heckler to stand down, that he was trying to take on the well-known pugilist. The bystander didn’t believe them, and by this time, he had annoyed McCoy enough to punch the man. While on the ground the heckler had time to ruminate and announced, “Yep, that’s the real McCoy.” I think we can agree that the Enterprise McCoy’s temper was real enough from classic and updated episodes .

Here’s Mud in Your Eye: When hoisting up a toast, someone might say, “Well, here’s mud in your eye.” Not the most favorable of toasts when exploring the original meaning, for it references to the other person being a loser. The expression is derived from a horse jockey alluding to winning since the other jockeys would become muddy from the dirt flung up by the front jockey’s horse hooves. To get mud in your eye simply means you are not considered a winner, and the person is in competition with you. I somehow imagine Cary Grant or Gary Cooper uttering this expression in a movie.

Nest egg: Those who are establishing retirement funds are quite familiar with building a nest egg. Back in the day when it was more common to keep chickens in the backyard, people would leave behind one egg so that the hen would be encouraged to keep laying. From this practice the idea of setting aside a bit of money to ensure its growth developed. The strategy being to continue to add to what is already there. An interesting side note is how a team of researchers tried out this theory on a nesting songbird by taking away all of its eggs but one. The songbird continued to lay eggs to get its clutch up to the usual amount of eggs. The researchers kept taking away eggs, but one. Apparently the songbird laid over seventy eggs. I would like to see my financial nest egg keep laying even if I took away some of the investment.

Nick of time: Hearing someone arrived in “the nick of time” or something happened in “the nick of time” sounds like disaster was utterly avoided. In actuality the “nick” served as an attendance marker back in the day. To keep track of those attending classes or church, the “tally” or attendance stick would be marked or “nicked” to show the person’s presence. To arrive in “the nick of time” means to show up. Not that dramatic after all. Then again, showing up can have impact, especially if you are a dog at the edge of a cliff.

O.K.: If everything is fine we usually signify by saying it’s “OK.” This expression comes from the 1840 presidential campaign with Martin Van Buren. Born in a Hudson Valley village known as “Old Kinderhook” the name became part of a Van Buren support group in New York who dubbed themselves “The Democratic O.K. Club.” Eventually the term OK developed into a rally cry signifying that their candidates were “all right.” Hmm, is being all right politically inclined?

Getting called on the carpet: Oh, oh–getting called on the carpet does not bring up positive images.

Comic Strip

In the former times, the boss’s office would be the only one to have carpet. If an employee was “called on the carpet” it meant a meeting with the boss. This meeting could be pleasant or unpleasant. Note: not all boss offices come complete with kitty litter.

Any of these expressions dazzle you with their origins?

I know I’m going to extra careful around any real McCoys when I make a toast, making sure its ok to joke about their nest egg, hoping my poor humor will save me in the nick of time from being called into the boss’s office. Wait a minute–does my boss even have carpet in his office?

Word Nerd: May


May’s batch is writerly in scope

Scrolling through my collection of gathered words I noticed several had a shared commonality with books, writing, or reading:

pseudepigraphy: attribution of authorship to a writer who did not write it; false inscription–usually refers to religious writings, as in biblical texts; however, fiction writers such as Nicholas Meyer who states he is the editor of memoirs of John Watson (who recounts cases of Sherlock Holmes).

fictioneer: a writer of fiction; a writer of mediocre fiction–does not sound like a compliment.

bibliophage: an avid reader–yup, although I just say I’m a Book Booster

donnish: bookish; pedantic–again, does not sound complimentary

wordie: someone enthusiastic about words–not to be confused with someone who is “wordy” (a talker of extreme verbosity)

sic: so; thus; as written–[sic] which usually means the writer is saying “that’s what they said; it’s not my mistake.

bromide: a trite saying or an aid to produce sleepiness–if a saying is boring enough I supposed someone would fall asleep

What words strike your fancy from this month’s list?

Why We Say: Hair of Dog to Ham Actors


Moving from “G” to “H” in sayings gleaned from Dictionary of Word Origins by Jordan Almond, we explore the following:

Hair of the Dog: today this refers to taking a drink to combat the morning after over indulgence; however, it originally referred to taking a hair from the dog that inflicted the damage and placing into the wound. Connection? Both cures deal with the logic-deprived means of dealing with a bite.

sobur.co

Going off half-cocked alludes to pursuing a line of action and not being prepared, with the result being less than satisfactory, which is derived from the original meaning of hunters carrying their gun at half cock for safety reasons, yet not fully engaging back into lock and loaded when ready to shoot. Both instances are from not taking “ready, aim, fire” seriously.

Ham actors are known today as those who overact, not being of high caliber in their theatrical attempts. This terms stems from the long ago practice of applying ham fat to the face to more easily remove the burnt cork used to create blackface, a part of a stage comedian’s routine. A ham actor comes from “hamfatter”—not a compliment. Hogging the stage is another aspect.

Handwriting on the wall is a portent of doom and goes back to the rule of Belshazzar. In Daniel 5 the words “Mene, Mene, Tekel, Upharsin“ appeared on the wall announcing the end of Belshazzar’s kingdom.

Hangout usually refers to a place where people gather or getting together and it stems from the phrase “Where do you hang out your sign?” which was the question professionals, artisans, and tradesmen would ask one another when inquiring about their their business.

Hard up is a tough place to be since it means being broke and hanging in the wind and that makes sense since the nautically inclined know that to put the helm hard up is to turn the ship away from the wind. So if a person is “hard up” it’s doubtful they can handle the financial storms that come up now and then.

Harping on a subject, going over the same subject repetitively is much like playing one string on the harp—not pleasant and somewhat annoying.

finedictionary.com

If something is “haywire” it usually indicates it’s broken, and that’s from the logging camp days when loggers would take the wire from hay bales to mend equipment.

If you are known to wear your heart in your sleeve, you probably show your emotions easily. In the days of chivalric knights, a knight would tie a scarf from his lady love around his arm to indicate his favor—all would see where his heart lay.

If someone is on their “high horse” he or she is acting superior, and in those yesteryear days of transportation, someone riding high up on their horse was definitely superior to those having to walk.

More “H” sayings next month…

Why We Say: Oh, “G”


Why are jokes considered a “gag”?
The term is originally from the days (as is today) when actors would toss in an ad libbed line to throw another actor off his own lines. Often this change up in the script would stop the actor from talking as effectively as being gagged and silenced. Isn’t the hope there is a gag reel why we buy the DVD?

Why does someone “run the gamut” ?
“Gamma” is the last note on the Guido d’Arezzo music scale with “ut” representing the first note sung. If someone goes through the “gamut” they are basically going from one end to the other.

Image result for getting your goat expression
Don’t horse around with my goat…

What is meant by “getting someone’s goat”?
Apparently in the horse racing world a nervous horse in the gate can be calmed by the presence of a goat. Unscrupulous owners might try to turn the race towards their favor by taking their rival’s goat. That’s baaadd business.

How is “being on good footing” an indication of rank with someone?
During the reign of England’s King Henry VIII a person’s social standing could be measured by his shoe. Peasants typically wore small shoes, being insignificant on the grand scale of social importance. The closer to the king, the larger the shoe. Hmm, wasn’t Henry known to be of dubious sole and a heel?

Image result for shoes king henry VIII wore
If the shoe fits?

Why do we call idle chatter “gossip”?
In earlier times godparents were called “God-sibbs” with “sibb” meaning “related.” Godparents were usually selected among distant relatives who, it is said, when they met at gatherings, such as christenings, were known to exchange news and tidbits. These idle chatter became associated with God-sibbs and slipped into “gossip.”

How did “guy” come into use?
The British expression “guy” refers to someone who is not respected from the revolutionary Guy Fawkes, who lead the 1605 Gunpowder plot. In America, the term comes from the circus reference to the “guy wire” the main wire that holds up the tent which meant refer to who is in charge when one asks for the “main guy.” Today “guy” is more or less a general term for people.

Well, “G” that’s it for this month for another round of Why We Say based on findings from the Dictionary of Word Origins: A History of the Words, Expressions, and Cliches We Use by Jordan Almond.

Why We Say: E batch


This month’s Why We Say is a batch fresh from the “E” section.

Eavesdropper

Going back to the Saxon days of England, a person could not build right to the property line since it was mandated that there needed to be space for the drip that rolled off the eaves. This became the “eavesdrip” and someone who leaned near the eavesdrip could hear what was being said in the next house, making them an “eavesdropper.” Maybe this is where the expression of being a “drip” originates from.

Electricity

What does amber have to do with electricity? Dr. William Gilbert, who was Queen Elizabeth I’s physician in 1601, decided to call the effect he produced when rubbing amber with a cloth “electric,” which comes from elecktron, Greek for amber. What this has to do with QEI, I’m not sure–it might be too shocking to conjecture.

Etiquette

Should you find yourself time traveling back to the royal court of France, you might be handed a card of instructions informing you how to behave. This card or ticket or estiquet eventually became “etiquette” or the rules of social behavior. So does one receive a ticket from the polite police if one does not follow the rules posted on the estiquet?

Bonus!

At no extra charge are a few specials from the F” chapter:

Farce

The Latin farcire means “to stuff” and the early religious plays often were stuffed with jokes and comedic scenes which led to humor that was obvious which came to be known as a “farce.”

Going Through Fire and Water

In early times people often had to prove themselves, usually their innocence, by going through some sort of trial. An example of going through fire was having to walk barefoot across hot coals or carrying a red-hot bar. A water test might involve sticking a hand in boiling water. Today, going through extremes, might feel like an endurance test of fire and water.

Fit as a Fiddle

Actually, this should be “fit as a fiddler.” Yeah, playing for a dance all night would take a bit of stamina.

(Old) Fogey

At one time the English word “foggy” meant “fat” or “moss-grown.” The Scotch transferred “foggy” into “fogey” to mean disrespect towards an old man who did not keep up with the times. I suppose moss can grow on a person who doesn’t keep up with change fast enough.

Need more fantabulous “F” sayings? Come back next month. I’ll even throw in some “G” selections.

Why We Say: D-zone


Continuing on with the exploration of everyday words and phrases that may baffle, irritate, or even amaze us, is a selection from the “D” chapter of Dictionary of Word Origins by Jordan Almond.

Dessert

We save the last course of a meal as “dessert” which comes from the French word desservir: to clear the table. The practice was to remove the table cloth to serve the last course. Today we remove the dinner plates to make room for that sweet end to a good meal.

Desserts spelled backward is stressed. Don’t stress out about eating desserts.

Dirt Cheap

No surprise here–dirt is cheap because it’s free. That is, unless you decide to have it delivered from one of the schmancy garden places.

Dog Days of Summer

Those really hot searing days that pop up during summer? The ones where being outside is misery? The Romans blamed those toasty times on the stars–Siriusly. That would be Sirius, the Dog Star. It was thought that Sirius got a bit hotter due to its rising with the sun. Those hot dog days were called cuniculares dies.

Double-Cross

I think of Jimmy Cagney when I hear “double-cross.” Actually I think of Bugs Bunny imitating Jimmy Cagney saying “you dirty double-crossing rat.” Then again. Monty Python gets it right as well:

https://getyarn.io/yarn-clip/f3d22bb5-e73e-472c-ba98-4e17f1b0c418

What’s it mean? In prize fighting, if a fighter intentionally lost a fight he “crosses up” both the spectators and those who bet on him. If he wins after the cross up he affects his manager and those who bet on him to lose. The two cross ups make for the “double cross.” Why Jimmy Cagney says it is a bit perplexing, although one could argue he is a bit of a fighter.

Down a Peg

The British Navy had a custom in which the ship’s colors were raised to recognize visiting dignitaries–the higher the colors, the greater the honor. Taking the colors down a peg indicated a decrease in honor.

Dressed to the Nines

Old English is responsible for this one. Someone who was “dressed to the eyne” was dressed “to the eyes” which is basically being dressed “up to the ears” something we just don’t say, even though logically we basically are.

Dressing Down

Having dressed up (to the ears) it makes sense that taking off clothes would be “dressing down.” Not so. A butcher preparing beef for market will slice the animal’s carcass. In the same manner, a person who receives a tongue lashing full of cutting remarks is getting a “dressing down.”

This…

Not this…

Dude

One of the most obsequious words going. This word stems from dudde, the Middle English word meaning “to dress.” Later down the road, an Easterner who went West in a fancy outfit discerned an attitude by the Westerners. Basically “dude” is a smash up of “dud” and “attitude.” Somehow that works for the Simpsons.

Tune in next month for more explanations, descriptions, and epiphanies.

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