Pam Webb

a writer's journey as a reader

Archive for the tag “common phrases”

Why We Say: Scot-Free to Skullduggery Dictionary of Word Origins: A History of the Words, Expressions  and Cliches We Use (9780806517131): Almond, Jordon: Books

As we move deeper into the “S” section of Jordan Almond’s Dictionary of Word Origins, we travel into nefarious terminology and meanings.

Scot-Free: “And just like that I got off paying that paying scot-free.” Getting away with something, or not having to pay for something is a relief and often a goal, but it has nothing to do with Scotland. “Scot” comes from the Anglo-Saxon sceot which means “money put into a general fund” — a “tax.” The scot was a form of income tax, determined by what people could pay. If someone were “scot-free” it meant they were free from paying tax.

She-Bang: “The whole she-bang comes crashing down after that windstorm blew through our yard–yup, them chickens were surprised when their coop fell apart.” Referring to the “whole she-bang” usually means an entirety. Originally, the term came from the Irish name for a drinking place without a license, which is also known as a speakeasy, or a shebeen. It’s thought a drinker deep in his cups might offer to take on everyone or the “whole sheebeen.”

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Shilly-Shally: “Well, don’t shilly-shally. Are you coming or not?” Someone who cannot make up their mind might wrestle with self-questions as in “Shall I?” The weak form of “shall” would be “shill.”

Shindig: “Sounds like that party is going to be some shindig.” Rough parties can sometimes break out into fights and techniques of kicking and gouging, digging into someone’s shins might take place. A reference to a rowdy eventually moved to a general term for a party.

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Shirt Off One’s Back: “My brother-in-law is so generous he would give the shirt off his back to help out someone who needed some help.” In the days when men generally were attired in a coat, pants, and shirt, to give out your coat was considered a decent offer since the giver remained decently attired with their remaining shirt and pants. However, to give someone the shirt of their back was considered a truly generous offer. Today, someone might not willingly hand over all they can decently give, and to give the shirt off one’s back can mean giving over and above the request.

Shoddy: “My new shirt is shoddy–it came apart after three washings.” When cloth was woven some of the fluff or loose fibers was shed. Which refers to the dialectal word “shode” meaning to separate. The fluff was gathered to make new weavings, but being weak in strength the clothes quickly fell apart.

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Skin of One’s Teeth. “He got out of that accident by the skin of his teeth.” This is a translation from the Book of Job in which it refers to how a person has no skin on their teeth, and so to get by the skin of one’s teeth is to indicate there wasn’t any margin at all.

Skinflint: “Oh, my Uncle Fred is such a skinflint in how he never spends more than he has to when we go out shopping.” Back in the day flint was used to make fire. After repeated use these pieces of rock would become smaller and smaller until hardly much was left. Someone wanting to save money on buying more flint would use the bits of rock or “skin,” the tiny pieces.

Skullduggery: “Watch out for that rough group of fellows walking down by the warehouse district. They could be getting into all kinds of skullduggery.” Grave robbing was once an active criminal activity and those who dug of the bones for various nefarious reasons were known as “skull diggers.” Over time any criminal activity would be known as “skullduggery.”

Next time we continue tromping through more “S” selections. Stay tuned…

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.

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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?

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.

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.

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…

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