Pam Webb

a writer's journey as a reader

Archive for the category “Expressions”

Word Nerd Confessions: October


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I might have mentioned it before that my heritage harkens back to the Isle of Skye in Scotland. Since that discovery I have grown more aware of all that is Scottish. This month I favor words that have Scottish roots. I might have to dedicate a post to famous Scots. I do enjoy listening to David Tennant and his broguish wit.

Who has the knack for Scottish wit and bravado? The Doctor, of course.

grumphie: a pig

hooly: gently

sennachie: a storyteller

blellum: an indiscreet talker

atweel: surely

shavie: a trick or a prank

I’ve come across other Scottish words in my readings of authors such as D.E. Stevenson and Allan MacKinnon that leave me puzzled to the point of setting my book down and searching out its meaning.

One of the words that stumped me was “ken.” Sentences like, “I ken your meaning,” really threw me. Context sleuthing pointed me towards understanding, but I finally looked it up and got this from dictionary. com:

verb (used with object),  kenned or kent, ken·ning.

Chiefly Scot.

  1. to know, have knowledge of or about, or be acquainted with (a person or thing).
  2. to understand or perceive (an idea or situation).

Scots Law. to acknowledge as heir; recognize by a judicial act.Archaic. to see; descry; recognize.

To “ken” something means to have a deeper understanding that just a mere acknowledgement. It’s one of those words that doesn’t translate well out of its cultural context–I ken that some words do better in their home language.

What Scottish words have you come across? Better yet, which of the above is one you are adopting? I’m leaning towards grumphie, as I do enjoy Guinea pigs. Then again, tossing out hooly at the right instance could be satisfying.

Why We Say: A Twist on Past Words


Language is fluid. It can start out with one meaning and morph into another definition over time. Here’s a batch of words that have come into their own meaning through the advent of social media:

Tagging, traffic, fan, wall, hacking, search, viral, link, ping, feed, alert, tweet, are just a few. Here are a few others that have changed:

Troll

Past: a large nasty creature who hung out under bridges. Sometimes a word used with fishing.

Now: Someone who pokes around online and stirs up responses.

Spam

Past: pinkish spongy mystery meat squished into a can.

Now: Unwanted, annoying messages that arrive through email or even as texts.

Friend

Past: a chosen companion who shared common interests.

Now: a button-click indicating a degree of superficial commitment.

Like

Past: a preference signifying a degree of indication of favor.

Now: a click response of rating that operates as a indicator of popularity.

Post

Past: to send a written communication through the postal service

Now: a written communication sent through social media most likely as a blog (a neoplasm and a separate post).

What words have you seen come into existence or change due to the influence of social media?

Why We Say #25: re(a)d


With school starting up again, red is an appropriate color for this month.

image: Twitter

Before delving into our feature, here is another word related to school:

Quiz

Have you ever wanted to be the originator of a word, to be the one Wikipedia can proclaim as the inventor, to be the one who is lauded as the first to start it all? It can be done, at least according to Why We Say…

Apparently, about a hundred or so years ago, a Dublin theatre manager proclaimed he could create a new word and make it popular enough that it would become part of everyday use, and he could accomplish this in 24 hours. He printed Q-U-I-Z on walls all over the city. The meaning of the word: practical joke. Its use then moved towards meaning a question or a series of questions. I think that explains why my students always say, “Is this a joke?” when they find out there is a pop quiz.

Read the Riot Act

More than one student has been read the riot act for bringing home bad grades–usually a result of not doing well on all those pop quizzes. While getting read the riot act today can involve an angry parent scolding a child, King George I of England in 1716 meant it to be something else. It seems King George did not want any disturbances to break out and one way to stop them was to let the people know of the consequences before they acted up. If the riot did occur the penalty would be servitude for life. Whether that was for the law enforcers or the law breakers is a bit hazy.

Red Cross

What would school be without the school nurse? Due to budget cuts, the school nurse is most likely a box attached to wall with medical supplies. That red cross on the box signifies the Red Cross organization. It’s the reverse of the Swiss flag design of a white cross on a red field. The original intent of the Red Cross was to relieve the suffering caused by wartime injuries, the idea being the inspiration of a Swiss man named Jean Henry Dunant in 1862.

Red Sea

Should this question pop up on a quiz you’ll now know the answer: The Red Sea is so named because the water is so clear that a person can see the beds of red coral, which gives the sea the appearance of being red.

Red Letter Day

Getting an “A” on a quiz (especially a tough one that hadn’t been studied for) might cause celebration as a Red Letter Day. Originally a red letter day signified a feast day for Christians marked on the 15th century calendar. A red letter day came to mean a special day or a special event.

Red Tape

When you think of a process that gets slowed down because it’s tied up in red tape, you aren’t too far from the true meaning. Way back in England, government documents were stored in envelopes secured with red tape because string might damage the contents. Why red? Unknown at this press release. If someone could not get access to a document they needed it was due to it being tied up in red tape. A case of the literal moving to the metaphorical.

Seeing Red

If you are seeing red, perhaps due to a bad quiz grade or getting paperwork work mired in red tape, that you are no doubt as mad as a bull being taunted by a matador waving a red cape. Actually, bulls are color blind, it’s the waving of the flag that annoys them. So next time you are really mad, get away from whatever is waving at your face. You’ll feel much better.

Hoping your back to school season is a red letter day that avoids red tape and pop quizzes so you can sea clearly and not see red enough to require Red Cross.

 

Rocking Out on Being Stoned


Nope. This is no expose on Mick Jagger. We’re looking into semantics today.
Did you know when you are picking up souvenir rocks at the beach you are actually picking up stones? Truly.

Rocks from morguefile
We may only think that “rock” and “stone” are interchangeable. They technically aren’t, yet like most of our language, we throw actuality out the window and go for ease of saying.

Stones by morguefile
Here are the distinguishing facts:

Rock: Usually large, immovable natural material made up of one or more minerals that is hard or soft in composition.

Stone: Most often a harder, smaller, moveable mineral matter. 
More clarifications:

A rock is comparatively larger.

A stone is comparatively small.

A rock is not usually moved, being it is part of the earth as in The Rock of Gibraltar. 

A stone can be picked up as in gemstones.

A rock can be hard or soft in material composition.

A stone is hard.

Now–how does that transfer into everyday expressions?

We say, “He’s solid. He’s a rock of strength. He’s immovable, and can’t be swayed.” And right about here is where the Rock of Gibraltar is bandied about.

Looking over the checklist of facts, it looks pretty good, metaphorically speaking.

Let’s move on…

“She’s got a heart of stone.” This is not a compliment. To be solid as a rock is considered a positive attribute; however, your heart should not be hard and it should be movable. Wait, stones are movable. Wouldn’t that mean that person could change her outlook?

Or doesn’t it follow that a rock solid person would have a heart of stone because the heart is a part of the body and is smaller and can be moved more easily?

Bookmark that thought. 

Think about:

A. We collect rocks along the shoreline to perhaps add them to our rock garden.

B. A diamond is a precious gemstone and set in a ring it’s touted as “quite a rock.” [right for gemstone, wrong for rock]

C. Loud electronic music  is considered “rock” and some will enhance the listening experience by being “stoned.” [not sure]

Now that you know the difference, be sure you don’t get caught between a rock and a hard place in your terms.
 

Why We Say: #19–hello to grapevines and heirlooms


A greeting known through the ages that actually didn’t start out so friendly. “Holla” was once used as a warning and Shakespeare placed it in his plays when a character wanted another to stop. From “holla” came the verb “holler” and when the phone was introduced the connections weren’t the best so people had to holler to be heard. These days, we no longer need to holler our hello into the phone, instead we simply ask “Can you hear me now?”

Before telephones people passed information from ear to mouth, and if you’ve ever played the telephone game, you know that second, third, and fourth hand information is not that reliable. Sending information from person to person rarely traveled in a straight line, and the information was bound run as crooked a course as a grapevine. “Heard it through the grapevine” may make for a great song, but it doesn’t make for a reliable source.

Moving away from hellos, we now explore heirlooms. This one is so incredibly logical. Way back in the day, the family loom was an important aspect of a household, being used to weave cloth to make clothes. This family possession would be passed from heir to heir. Today, an heirloom signifies something passed from one generation to another. Good thing that–my small house would be hard-pressed to make room for a loom.

photos from Morguefile.com

Next month: getting the lowdown on perceived lowlife…

Why We Say #18: A bit about giving


Last month was all about getting, so this month we’ll focus on giving.

1. Giving the slip

Mercutio accused Romeo of giving his homies the slip after the Capulet party. So even in Shakespeare’s time there is mention of needing a fast getaway when the occasion called for one.

In actuality, ships coming into port would anchor by slipping a rope through a hawse pipe, the metal piece attached to the ship’s bow. If the captain needed to leave sooner than anticipated, he simply let loose the rope and slipped away silently to sea. I betcha Cpt Jack Sparrow knows about that one.

Heave ho, maties, give them the slip. iimage: BrassGlass/Morguefile

2. Give a wide berth

Speaking of ships coming and going–if a ship leaving the dock , or berth, knew they might be passing next to a ship being detained for health reasons, as in plague or epidemic concerns, they would give that ship wide passing. In other words, they would steer clear so they wouldn’t get near whatever was being feared.

Aargh, give them scurvy dogs a wide berth. image: BrassGlass/Morguefile

3. Giving the cold shoulder

Oh, we’ve been there, haven’t we–you know the feeling, that uncomfortable twinge of being snubbed, especially when you thought you would be ever so warmly received. Well, today you might just get subtly ignored, but if you lived in medieval France you would end up with cold cuts. That’s right, if you weren’t on the A list and you showed up to the party, instead of that yummy slice of venison, pheasant, swan, or whatever was on the best list of entrees, you would get the cold shoulder slice of lamb or beef. But wait a minute, I gladly purchase lamb and don’t mind it cold. Maybe that explains why I’m oblivious when people ignore me at dinner parties.

Moral: don’t be late or it’s a cold plate image:MaxStraeten/MorgueFile

Until next month… Be careful what you say until you know why you are saying it.

Why We Say #17: Getting it all said and done


What with National Poetry Month and school letting out, and getting ready for my Hamlet trip, I realize I’m remiss in getting out another edition of “Why We Say,” which is a look into the background of those words and phrases that are part of our everyday vernacular.

Why we say: A guidebook to current idioms…

Today’s chapter is all about “getting”:

1. Getting the sack

I’m glad when I go to work everything is pretty much set up for me. I wouldn’t want to lug around desks, books, whiteboards, markers, paper, computers–wow, there’s a lot involved in being a teacher. Although being a trades mechanic around 300 years ago meant I came to work toting my own tools in a sack. If the boss didn’t like my work he’d tell me to get the sack, which meant “Hit the road, Jack.”

2. Getting the third degree

Note: I am getting this down low on the low down about police procedures from this quaint second hand book. Please don’t accuse me of sterotyping, perpetuating urban myths, or promoting wrong ideas. This is a Cyndi Lauper exercise of just wanting to have some fun.

So when someone says, “Did you get the third degree?” you’ll know that it comes from [supposed] police techniques of the first degree being arrested, the second degree getting confined, and then getting reaching the third degree of being roughly questioned. Puts this saying into a different perspective. I’ll be looking for it when watching my next detective show. It guess this goes right along with third degree burn.
3. Getting into a scrape

Who knew deer could be devious? During certain times of the season, deer are known to dig out indentations in the ground to rest in. If someone isn’t watching where he is going he could fall into one of these antler scraped pits. I wouldn’t think so dearly of them deeries after nearly breaking my ankle from the whole hole.

And in summary–a really bad day, back in the day would involve getting the third degree about getting the sack, after getting into a scrape.

Why We Say: #16


This round involves some flash and splash in terms of remberance…

Flash in the Pan
We know the story: a new talent comes on the scene, everyone is appropriately dazzled, and whist and fizzle, the name fades from view. The expression “flash in the pan” comes from 17th century muskets and how the flint sparks ignited the powder in the loading pan. The powder, like flashy talent, gave off a spark, yet had no significance or long-lasting effect.

these guns were fairly flashy in their day image: revwarheart/Morguefile

Flirtation
Flirting is a behavior most associated with women, although I’ve known a few men who can rustle up the attraction factor as well. However, I don’t think too many men would consider waving a fan about to get attention, which is from where our term of “flirting” originates. Women desiring the attention of available men at dances, balls, or other gatherings would practice the fine art of waving or flirting their fans about. Fans are out, but flirting is still in play today. Perhaps words and actions have replaced the fan’s muted motions.

Pennywise (Morguefile) might be suggesting that someone fanning this about would definitely attract attention

Forget-Me-Not

These sweet little flowers have a sad story image: Jusben/Morguefile

These are garden favorites of mine. Every year I faithfully sprinkle out seeds and hope for the best. Not as many pop up as I hope, yet once planted they perk up the summer landscape with their multitude of blooms. Now that I’ve discovered their story I appreciate them even more. I’ve added a wee bit more to the snippet I found:

Once upon a time, (like all great German tales start), a dedicated knight decided to surprise his lady-love. Making his way down to the banks of the Danube river he began to pick a bouquet of the blue-star flowers that grew there. So intent was he upon gathering the flowers that he did not notice how close he was to the edge of the riverbank. Alas, the ground gave way and he fell in. Being a fighter and not a swimmer, he found himself being swept away by the river’s current. His lady-love rushed along the riverbank, yet she was not a swimmer either. Before the river claimed the gallant knight he tossed the remaining flowers he held in his hand towards his lady and called out “Vergiss mein nicht” asking her to “forget him not.” It’s said the lady never married and instead of black she wore the gentian blue of the little flower, as her way of always remembering her lost knight.

Next time we’ll look at different ways a person gets burned…

Why We Say: #15


Watercooler chatter: “That new CEO doesn’t do much, does he?”
“Yeah, bit of figurehead, I figure.”

Today’s lesson involves some sailing knowledge. First, it’s important to know the front, the bow, from the back, the stern. The bow would be decorated with some sort of figure which actually is fairly interesting (go on–have a peek). They didn’t serve any real purpose, but they sure made the ships look imposing, important, regal, at times intimidating. There is also the thought that a figurehead, as in politics and business, can be controlled by other forces, much like the figurehead on the ship is controlled by the sails or other power. Hmm, is there a connection between these two figures in terms of being figureheads?

KONICA MINOLTA DIGITAL CAMERA  Elizabeth II greets NASA GSFC employees, May 8, 2007 edit.jpg (I think highly of the Queen, BtW)

Any Laurel and Hardy fans out there? You might recognize this saying, “This is a fine kettle of fish you’ve gotten us into.” If you recall, this was flustered out by Oliver Hardy to Stan Laurel after some frustrating incident. But why a kettle of fish? Maybe Ollie had some Scottishishness about him and was recalling how fishermen thought they could coax the best flavor out of the fish by cooking them right on the spot in a large kettle. They must have known the secret of cooking up a fine kettle of fish, since no one else could replicate it. Hence, from then on “a fine kettle of fish” is actually referring to a mess instead of success.

 

Singing in the Rain is a personal favorite, especially all those great song and dance numbers by Gene Kelly and Donald O’Connor. How about this one:

Why “fit as a fiddle?” Kelly and O’Connor might not have realized they were referring to boxers, the fighters (not the dogs) in their ditty. Apparently the original expression was “fit as a fiddler” because boxers had to be in top condition in order to go a few rounds in the ring. Wait, a minute, Gene and Donald must have known that to be “fit as a fiddle and ready for love” they would have to be ready to fight for their love. Makes sense…

 

(images from Morguefiles and Wikipedia)

 

Why We Say: #14


Facing the music. For most of us that does not mean we are a conductor or going to a concert. Usually it means we have messed up and are about to deal with our consequences. Wait a minute–music is considered pleasant. Wouldn’t facing music be pleasant? Not if the band is playing and you’re in the line up for the firing squad. And the band played on takes on a whole different meaning.

 

“So, Eddie–what’s with the guy in the blind fold over by the wall?” image: morgue file

The scene: a business exec, clad in suit enters suburban home circa 1950s and excitedly greets wife stirring up dinner at the stove.

“Hey, Martha! Guess what, honey? You’re looking at the guy who just landed the Happy Holstein account. Get ready for some serious vacation time once my commission check comes through.”

“Oh, George! That’s wonderful, dear. That’s quite a feather in your cap. You worked hard to get that account.”

Fade out: happy couple celebrates over dinner and raised glasses of cheer and smiles.

George was fairly pleased with himself, and deservedly so. That Holstein account involved many overtime hours to get the right campaign ready for presentation. George placed his figurative feather in his cap for his achievement. If George had lived in the days of Edward the “Black Prince” (think the nice prince Heath Ledger’s William character faced in Knights Tale), he would have received three ostrich feathers for his valor or perhaps he would have fared well as a Lycian soldier who added a feather to his cap for every enemy soldier vanquished. Either way George can be pleased how he absolutely slayed that tough assignment.

 

George rocks his cap feather. image: morgue file

fi·as·co
fēˈaskō/
noun
 a thing that is a complete failure, especially in a ludicrous or humiliating way.
“his plans turned into a fiasco
synonyms: failure, disaster, catastrophe, debacle, shambles, farce, mess, wreck
If George had blown the Holstein account he might have arrived home with the glum, instead of glad news, that his day had been a fiasco. Fiascos should be avoided, especially if one’s profession is a Venetian glass maker. Venetian glass is exquisite and craftsman pride is evident in the end product. If the slightest flaw became detected, the bottle was relegated to a common task which took on the name of “fiasco.” If you think about it, some mistakes can be as transparent as glass.

“Quartet of Fiascos” image: morgue file

A band of feathers and faulty glasses brought to you by Why We Say: a Guidebook to Current Idioms and Expressions and Where They Came From by Robert L. Morgan (if 1953 is considered current…)

 

 

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