Pam Webb

a writer's journey as a reader

Archive for the category “everyday expressions”

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.

Shakespeare Celeb: William’s Words


Words Shakespeare Invented
(under the guise of April’s Word Nerd Confessions)

Getty Images/Edward Gooch

image: Mental Floss

While Shakespeare was a creative wordsmith–no doubt there, it should be noted that he tended to borrow from other sources and polish them so well that they became associated more with him than the original. I cite the sonnet form, Romeo and Juliet, and Julius Caesar as starter examples.

Another aspect of polishing came to words. It’s thought Shakespeare contributed at least 1,500 words to the common language, some sources say it’s closer to 1,700. He achieved this by changing nouns into verbs or verbs into adjectives or splicing together words. Shakespeare Online.com, a marvelous source of all matter Shakespeare, has compiled a short list of some of his contributions. For further elaboration on his wordly inventions please click here.

Note: clicking on the word will take you to the play where it was used.

academe accused addiction advertising amazement
arouse assassination backing bandit bedroom
beached besmirch birthplace blanket bloodstained
barefaced blushing bet bump buzzer
caked cater champion circumstantial cold-blooded
compromise courtship countless critic dauntless
dawn deafening discontent dishearten drugged
dwindle epileptic equivocal elbow excitement
exposure eyeball fashionable fixture flawed
frugal generous gloomy gossip green-eyed
gust hint hobnob hurried impede
impartial invulnerable jaded label lackluster
laughable lonely lower luggage lustrous
madcap majestic marketable metamorphize mimic
monumental moonbeam mountaineer negotiate noiseless
obscene obsequiously ode olympian outbreak
panders pedant premeditated puking radiance
rant remorseless savagery scuffle secure
skim milk submerge summit swagger torture
tranquil undress unreal varied vaulting
worthless zany gnarled grovel

Ready for a challenge? Create a sensible sentence with as many of the above words as possible. Here’s a starter…

So–next time you reach for the skim milk, hoping you won’t be disheartened  to discover it’s worthless and sour, initiating a rant of discontent, consider a generous thanks to the Bard for providing a varied list to select from so as not to impede  your outbreak towards those accused of leaving milk past its prime in the refrigerator, because a  tranquil   kitchen produces radiance. I know, this sentence is laughableif not zany.

DOWOs: the “B” list


If new to DOWO, it stands for Dictionary of Word Origins by Jordan Almond, which is a new source for exploring all those words, expressions, idioms, and clichés that abound in our language having thoroughly explored our previous source Why We Say.

If you were here last month around the fifteenth, you know we have already covered the “A” list. We are now off exploring the “B” list:

Why is the four year degree called a “bachelor’s” degree?

Originally a bachelor was a soldier, a man neither old enough or wealthy enough to lead into battle under his own banner, and was considered to be inferior in status. When colleges became more popular, to distinguish between the levels of study and awarded degrees, “bachelor” was the indicated inferior to that of “doctor.”

No mention of how “master” came to be, and it is of note that a “master” is lower than a”doctor” designation, yet “master” does carry more significance than a “mister” status.

How did “taking the back seat” come to mean taking a lesser position?

British Parliment dictates that those members of the majority part take the front seats while those in minority are relegated to the back, or are told to do so. In case you are wondering if it is “back seat” or “backseat” here is the discussion:

Where did the term “bankrupt”come from?

In Italy money-changers placed money available to loan on a banca or bench. If unable to continue in business, the bench would be broken or banca  rotta. The broken bench became synonymous with the broken money lender and both were banca rotta or “bankrupt.”

What is a “bare-face lie?”


To tell a lie without having show your face is much easier than having to face someone and tell a lie, as in trying to keep a straight face while communicating a big fat fib.

Why is an airship called a “blimp?”

It was almost called “A-limp.” In 1914 England began testing airships, and of the two designs the “B-limp” rose to usage. Why “limp?” It was non-rigid–but you guessed that right?

What is meant by “once in a blue moon?”


Blue moons supposedly never happen, which was the original saying. However, moons can appear blue when seen through volcanic explosion ash, so maybe, just maybe a blue can be seen–but just barely. They are fairly rare and their appearance may only happen once in a person’s lifetime.

Why does a person “bone up” for exams?

The Bohn publishing printed up study aids for students which were referred to as a “Bohn up” later becoming a “bone up” as a play on “bonehead” meaning a person who wasn’t smart (because you must have a thick skull and no brains if you need extra help studying).

What is meant by “getting down to brass tacks?”

In early England draper shops the draper placed brass tacks along the counter to aid in measuring off material. When a customer was ready to purchase cloth the draper would get the desired stock down to the brass tacks to measure off and complete the transaction.

Where did the term “bus boy” come from?


The Latin term omnibus means “for all.” An “omnibus boy” was a lad who did a bit of everything, and it became shortened to “bus boy.”

Which saying totally made your day, tweaked your paradigm, or prompted you to immediately want to run out and share with someone?

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.

Why We Say: #35 (finale)


Alas–we have come to the last page of Why We Say. Over the past couple of years I trotted out some of the odd little expressions we say enhanced by the odd little explanations of this odd little book published in 1953. Some of the explanations were as amusing of the featured expressions.

And so, the last four entries consist of:

Worsted

While worsted sounds like a judgmental critique, it’s actually a material, a fabric made from wool and is used in tailored garments such as suits, carpets, gloves, and other clothing. It is known for its ability to be resilient and recovery well, meaning durability and wrinkle-resistant. We may not go around speaking great volumes about worsted, it is notable that it is actually the name of the town it originated from: Worstead, England. Incidentally, the archaic reference of worsted is “stuff.” I wonder if the Right Stuff  meant NASA space suits were wool.

 

Yankee
Here are some theories about this word that is a slang reference to Americans:
1. It is derived from “yonokie” which is supposedly Indian (tribe not designated) for “silent” and this would be a bit of  joke since the English were considered quite talkative.
2. Another theory is that “yankee” comes from “yengee” a form of “English” or “Anglais.”
3. There is also the thought it is a corruption of “Jannee” which is a form of John in Dutch, since many settlers in the New York area were of Dutch origin.

Researching to verify the theories proposed by Why We Say leads to the conclusion no one really knows how and where the saying originated.  If you know, drop me a comment. In the mean time, enjoy this cartoon:

Yellow (as in coward)
To be yellow is to be associated with being a coward, or to be weak. We look to France for one source, which claims the doorways of traitors were painted yellow. (Yikes, I once painted our house yellow. Whatever did our neighbors think?). Another source says Spain because those being executed for treason were given robes of yellow. (No yellow robes in my wardrobe).

I associate the expression “yellow-bellied” with Yosemite Sam. Alas, I could not find a clip where he utters the phrase “Why, you yellow-bellied coward!” but I did find one where he dances and thought that merited a post.

 

It’s been a fun run with this feature. Not wanting to disappoint followers and fans, I have found another source. Stay tuned…

 

 

Why We Say: #34–flowers, teeth, salt, and wolves


Having just attempted to read Perks of a Wallflower (didn’t finish–that’s a different post), it was timely when I popped open my Why We Say book to the “W” section. The first entry?

Wallflower

garden.lovetoknow.com

In Europe, and maybe in America, bright yellow and red flowers grace stone walls, adding quiet color to break up the monotony. And so it is with people who might quietly stand against the wall at a function and not participate, at least not visibly. Just because they aren’t gregarious doesn’t mean they don’t have an opinion about what’s going on. Subtle observation does have its perks.
Wisdom Teeth

Around senior year my students start missing school for a variety of reasons. One of the oddly frequent absences involves wisdom teeth removal. This is usually a two day to one week ordeal depending on the success of the procedure. My wisdom teeth were pulled during my freshman year of college. The removal went well. The recovery process did not. Apparently codeine is not on friendly terms with my system.

creativedentalcare.com

The Romans believed since wisdom teeth come in so late they indicate the increase of knowledge. So removing them indicates we lose some of our wisdom? There might be a plausible correlation to this thought actually.

Take It With a Grain of Salt

gingersoftware.com
Another Roman story concerns itself with salt. Pompey, general and colleague of Julius Caesar, had a solution to the possibility of poisoning: “take a grain of salt to complete the relief.” Maybe that’s why we say “take it with a grain of salt” when we receive something distasteful.
Wolf in Sheep’s Clothing

Around 2500 years ago Aesop wrote a fable about a wolf who wore a sheep’s fleece in order to cozy in with the flock and snag a couple of lamb burgers. Today if someone is described as a wolf in sheep’s clothing, it’s best to watch out–this person is decidedly trying to be friendly with ulterior motives.

Image: Americaoutloud.com

One more post and we are done with Why We Say. However, no need for dismay–I found another word origin book on my shelf, and we continue our etymology explorations.

Why We Say: #33–“V”


This month we explore vaccinations, vagabonds, and villains.

Pintrest: “You want me to volunteer for what?”

VACCINES
Cows are the hero in this exploration of vaccinations. Way back when, smallpox was a dreaded disease that disfigured and could be fatal. Interestingly enough, doctors, particularly Dr. Jenner, noticed cows suffered only a mild case of the pox. Someone decided, “You know, by taking a bit of blood from a cow infected with the virus and injecting it into a person, that would probably give that person just a mild case of cowpox.” And because there must have been another astute doctor on this way back when research time, the additional reply might have been:

“Yeah–so if a person gets cowpox, he wouldn’t get smallpox, right? All we need is a volunteer.”

Did they found a willing volunteer or did they do a best Two out of three round of rock-paper-scissors?

By the way the “vacca” in vaccination means cow in Spanish. Consider mooing your thanks to a cow for their contribution to medical science.

VAGABONDS

well-dressed vagabonds

image: britishshakespeare.co.k

 
Before permanent theaters were established in Shakespeare’s time, actors traveled the countryside performing wherever they could. Taking the cue from the Latin “vagaries” meaning “to wander,” these wanderers became known as vagabonds. Eventually the term attached itself to anyone without a fixed home.

VILLAIN

 

image: fanpop.com “Don’t have a cow, Loki. You are a villain.”

Oh those evil people that cause our heroes so many problems: Snidely Whiplash, the Joker, Loki, just to drop a couple of names. Yet, originally there was no evil in the word; in fact, the Latin “villanus” means one who lives on a villa, which was often a farm. A villain was applied to one who worked on a villa or farm. And because these workers were usually poor or of low birth, the wealthy thought these villains to be evil (naturally, right?).

 

Maybe one villain test could be if the bad guy knows how to milk a cow–wait, Loki wears cow horns. Maybe there is something to this after all.

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