Pam Webb

a writer's journey as a reader

Archive for the tag “phrases”

How Cliché: The “D” List


dark horse: an unexpected winner or a surprise outcome
An obscure origin, yet its use can be traced to the nineteenth century and horse racing. When a horse’s background or ancestry is unknown the term “dark” is used. The term is also associated with the practice of some owners who would dye their horse to disguise its appearance and change the betting odds. “Dark horse” eventually moved from racing to politics. A “dark horse” now means a political candidate who has unexpectedly won, such as James Polk, who won the 1844 Democratic nomination and became the US 11th president.

image: nuttyhistory.com

diamond in the rough: an individual with potential
An raw, unpolished diamond is not impressive since it resembles a dull worthless rock. However, once processed it is both stunning and valuable. The idea of an uncultivated person becoming polished in manners or appearance is found in various literary and film references.

image: AZ quotes

dime a dozen: readily available to the point of not having much value
In 1786 Congress designated the ten cent coin as a dime, which is derived from the French dime meaning “tithe” or one-tenth. This makes sense or cents since it takes ten dimes to make a dollar. Early in the twentieth century a single dime could buy a paperback novel, a cup of coffee, or a doughnut. The Great Depression created the plea of “Can you spare a dime?” which at the time had more buying power. Today the dime doesn’t go very far in buying power, but the idea of being able to buy much with a coin of little denomination stays on in usage.

image: wonderopolis.com

dot the “i’s” and cross the “t’s”: to be thorough and precise
Sloppy penmanship can create confusing results, so students learning to write were admonished to become more aware of finishing their writing with exactness. That was back when cursive writing was part of the educational menu. Today? Keyboards take care of those “i’s” and “t’s.”

image: gyaniq.com

dressed to the nines: well-attired
This American saying is first credited to E.G. Paige’s Dow’s Patent Sermons of 1849 with the passage “A gentleman tiptoeing along Broadway, with a lady wiggle-waggling by his side, and both dressed to kill.” Dressed to kill signified a conquest, and being dressed to the nines are similar in that they both mean achieving perfection since “nine” is considered to be a number that is associated with the best (being the highest single digit).

image: thesourus.com


dull as dishwater: boring, oh so boring
The original saying was “dull as ditchwater” which referred to the muddy murk found in roadside ditches. In Oliver Twist by Charles Dickens the sentence uttered by Fanny Cleaver is found: “He’d be sharper than a serpent’s tooth, if he wasn’t as dull as ditchwater.” Probably due to incorrect or sloppy pronunciation “ditchwater” became “dishwater.”

images: AZ quotes

This was condensed list of “D” sayings–if I missed one or two let me know!

How Cliché: The “B” List


The “B” section is booming with cliché phrases. All these are from Christine Ammer’s Have a Nice Day–No Problem: A Dictionary of Clichés.

The worst backseat drivers | Insurance.com
A backseat driver can be found anywhere

Backseat driver: unwanted advice.
In the 1920’s, those who could afford to do so, engaged a chauffer to drive them. The chauffer sat up front and the passenger or employer sat in the back and gave their driver instructions. Today the term applies to someone giving what they perceive as helpful advice, usually to the chagrin to the person doing the task. Other applicable phrases are Armchair General and Monday-Morning Quarterback.

Back to square one: back to the beginning
Though it sounds like a math problem, thoughts on this one are related to games where the start is a square, as in hopscotch or in a number of board games. Putting in hard work only to start over is frustrating and this term goes with back to the drawing board when the blueprints don’t pan out.

Salt mine Memes
And put some pepper in your efforts…

Back to the salt mines: returning to work
At one point in history, Russian prisoners during communist times were sent to work in the Siberian salt mines. While coming off of break can be tough, it probably is easier going that chipping away at rocks.

(The) ball is in your court: take your turn
A current expression from sports, which is attributed in the mid 20th century which is said when one person is a)being polite b)pushing the other person to take their turn c)a strategy to get the other person to reveal their intentions through action or words.

Bald face or barefaced liar/lie: an obvious, if not bold untruth.
Bare could be brazen, but it is likely is related to “beardless” which connects to only the young (not old enough to grow a beard yet) could so unashamedly tell such outrageous lies.

Idiom: Barking up the wrong tree (meaning & examples)
Categorically funny to Cocoa

(To) bark up the wrong tree: waste time or effort going in the wrong direction
Once when hunting racoons with dogs was prevalent, sometimes dogs, so pleased with themselves, would bound up to a tree so sure they had caught the varmint, would bark to their owners their success. Raccoons, being the clever creatures that they are often led the dogs astray by jumping to another tree or applying some other witty escape strategy. For those out there thinking they have solved the problem through what seems to be a long and productive chase, they might find themselves baying at empty branches and must go back to square one.

(To have) bats in one’s belfry: deemed slightly crazy
Bats in flight fly in a more irregular than regular pattern. At one time people watching bat flight thought the irregular flight reflected how bats thought–erratically. Since then it has been proven bats have a sophisticated flying system that employs sonar which keeps them from bumping into obstacles. While belfrys are not much in current use, one might be considered batty if their thoughts or speaking seems random, which might at first seem like an insult, yet it’s actually a compliment since bats are considered sophisticated creatures.

(To) beard the lion: to take a risk
If you haven’t heard this term recently, that makes two of us. Considered cliché for over a century, this phrase has Biblical roots coming from when David related how by grabbing a lion by its beard he slew him. Facing danger and vanquishing it is one thing, grabbing lions is quite another. Granted, David showed his bravery. Look how this lion’s beard–that’s up close and personal.

Why do men have more facial hair than women? - Quora
Bearding the lion (looks more like a goatee)

Beat (scare) the living daylights out of: to punish or scare someone tremendously
A 19th century American colloquialism for a person’s internal organs was “daylights.” To punish or scare someone so severely that there innards would fall out is indeed severe.

Bed or roses: an implied place of comfort
Metaphorically, lying in a bed of roses sounds pleasant, being surrounded by the fragrant petals. However, there are thorns to consider. And a literal bed of roses demands constant care, so this phrase implies the opposite, as in the situation is not comfortable.


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.

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