Pam Webb

a writer's journey as a reader

Archive for the tag “Sayings”

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: Getting an “A” on knowing your “F” sayings


Veering slightly from the usual format, this month you get to test your knowledge on sayings revolving around “F.”Here we go:

  1. Why do we say “feathers his nest” when someone takes care of his business in a well and organized manner?

2. Why do we refer to someone flaky as a “fair weather friend”?

3. Why do we say “fortnight” when it is two weeks?

4. Why do we say “fork it over” when demanding something from someone?

5. Why do we refer to a sports enthusisast as a “fan”?

6. Why do we say someone is “on the fence” if he or she is undecided?

7.Why do we say “fishy” is something doesn’t seem quite right?

8. Why do we say someone is “footloose” if appearing carefree?

9. Why do we say “fagged out” when really, really tired?

10. Why do we say someone “flies off the handle” when angry?

Those were the questions. Are you ready for the answers?

  1. “Feathering one’s nest” refers to making the situation comfortable, just as a bird feathers its own nest to make it nicer.
  2. A “fair weather friend” is someone who can be only counted on during good times, which is much like sailing–clear skies, no storms is preferred.
  3. “Fortnight” is a shortened version of “fourteen nights.”
  4. Hold your hand out, now spread your fingers. Looks like a pitch fork, right? That’s the idea. A pitchfork grabs onto to something, much like fingers grasp.
  5. A “fan” is shortening of the word “fanatic”–someone overly enthusiastic.
  6. If you are “on the fence” you could go either way, which is like indecisive people–they could go either way in their choice.
  7. This happened to us after hot weather and salmon leftovers in the garbage. Our garage smelled “fishy”–it did not smell right.
  8. No, this does not refer to Kevin Bacon. “Footloose” refers to when animals, particularly horses, are released from their halter or restraints into the pasture. They are often seen kicking up their hooves, much like someone who does not feel restrained by conventions or rules. Probably more figuratively, although Kevin Bacon certainly kicked up his heels when he was dancing.
  9. Easy. “Fagged” is a derivation of “fatigued.”
  10. Watch out for those hammers or axes that have loose heads because once action gets going the head can “fly off the handle,” just like those folk who get getting going and lose control.

How did you do? Some of them make so much sense it’s easy to come up with a more complicated answer. Until next time we tackle “why we say”…

BONUS!

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.

Why We Say


 

STUFFED SHIRT

 

“Oh, don’t pay any attention to him and his boastings. He’s just a stuffed shirt,” Laurie whispered to Ana about their linguistics professor.

For some reason I thought being a stuffed shirt meant being an old fuddy-duddy, someone who insists on doing things exactly and according to the rules with no wavering, to the point of being quite boring. The truth of the matter is:

An actor of the 1899 era, John Gates, was believed to pad his shirts to give himself a more impressive impression, a bit like shoe lifts or padded shoulders, except more applied to the front area to have an admirable physique. So in actuality, a stuffed shirt refers to someone who is pompous, who thinks himself more important than he really is. And those kind of people can be quite boring, when you think about it.

SWAN SONG

Image result for swan song

“That was her last performance,” the reviewer mentioned in her article of the famous actress. “Performing as Cleopatra was her swan song.”

When I hear the expression “swan song,” I think of it being the last effort of a person, the culminating moment of achievement or something that brings the downfall of a person. Not being terribly sure of its meaning, I’m cautious about how to use this expression.

Apparently, according to thoughts going back to Plato’s time, the swan not being able to sing like other birds would burst into one last song just before dying. In reality, while swans don’t sing, they do make a variety of noises. This is a case of “mything the mark.” Even Shakespeare got it wrong, when he has Portia say in the Merchant of Venice: 

Let music sound while he doth make his choice; then, if he lose, he makes a swan-like end, fading in music.

Being Shakespeare, we’ll let that one go.

SWAPPING HORSE IN MIDSTREAM
“Even though we don’t agree with some of the decisions of our new boss, it’s best not to swap horses in midstream,” Bart told the group, as they headed out to the parking lot.

This one makes sense, as it would be uncomfortable, awkward, maybe even unsafe to try to get on one horse while on another traversing the river. The few times I have traveled by horseback I think staying in one saddle is hard enough without having to try to switch to another horse and another saddle, let alone while trying to do so in a river.

Abraham Lincoln is credited with this saying. With his wry wit he made a speech during the Civil War that it best not to switch allegiance of presidents by swapping horses midstream. This was alluding to how many people were unhappy with his wartime politics and wanted new leadership.Fortunately, people took his advice and stayed put in their saddles.

Click Picture for Larger View

image: abelincoln.com

Why We Say: A monthly series that explores a variety of sayings and expression that are common or are interesting, based on the information found in Why We Say by Robert L. Morgan.

Why We Say #26: ‘Tis the Season or here’s to muddying meanings


Between putting our votes in and putting up the mistletoe there are words we banter around that no longer mean what they once meant.

For instance:

Season: from the Middle English “seson”, which originally referred to spring, the time for sowing. “Season” is now extended to four times of year: spring, summer, fall, and winter. I actually live in an area that recognizes a fifth season, one that is situated between the last snows of winter and the downpours of spring. We call it “Mud.”
Transitioning from seasons to secrets:
Secretary: a good secretary can keep a secret, and there were a good many secrets floating this last election season. Maybe the mud season applies to election years as well. Never mind…. However, the word “secretary” is derived  from “secrets” because appropriately enough, a secretary dealt with his or her employer’s private papers, which no doubt contained some clandestine concerns.

Moving from secrets to secret agendas:

Senate: in Roman times the senate was comprised of one hundred men who tended to be on the elder side of life having accrued a wealth of experience and wisdom. It makes sense then that senate is derived from “senis,” not to be confused with “senile,” of course not. 

And that brings us to another politically oriented term:

Shake hands: skaking hands signals agreement, courtesy, acknowledgement, and friendship. Originally it was a precaution, making sure that the other person wasn’t reaching for his sword with his other hand. Wait, wasn’t Caesar in the process of shaking hands with members of his Senate when he was stabbed? So much for trust and knowing what the right hand and the left hand are doing.

This moves us to consider–

Showing one’s true colors: to avoid suspicion pirates would raise up the colors of a friendly nation and once they pulled up alongside a ship they decided to plunder, they would raise their true colors of their pirate ways. Hmm, the political connection seems to be still afloat.

Speaking of evil:

Sinister: it’s only been in recent years that being a lefty is considered somewhat of a notable distinction. Back in the Roman days (difficult leaving our ancient roots), the left side was considered unlucky and even “sinister.” Anything menacing or wrong would be designated as sinister. In fact, the idea of left being wrong (and not right) is found in other languages such as the French’s “gauche” attached to the idea of committing a gaffe or error.

That leads us to:

Snooper: from the Dutch verb “snoopen” referring to the practice of eating sweets without getting caught, so it makes sense to noun this verb into a snooper or snoop. 

This makes me wonder if a sinister senate secretary is willing to show his or her true colors when caught out as a snoop. Watch out if the offer to shake hands is mentioned as as an acknowledgment of the season of goodwill and glad tidings. See–mud still applies. 

Morguefile image

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.

 

Why We Say #21: In the Know


As the year wraps up it’s time for one more round of Why We Say sayings. Since being in the know is a valued asset, we shall dive into the in and outs of “in”:

In the Bag
A: “Have you got the test figured out?”
B: “Yeah man–it’s in the bag?”

This exchange indicates speaker B has oodles of confidence about his upcoming test, that he can count on scoring well upon it. He may not realize his confidence harkens back to days when they traipsed off to the woods to collect their game. Much could be said about the one that got away, so what was already in the game bag is what really counted

In God We Trust
Glancing at American currency a person will find the motto “In God We Trust.” This is the result of Secretary of the Treasury Salmon P. Chase acting upon the many requests of people who wanted some expression of faith upon the country’s currency. Beginning in 1864, a bronze two-cent piece had the stamped “In God We Trust.” [Maybe this is where we get the expression of getting our two-cents in]

In the Groove
Though it might be difficult to find an LP to play upon a stereo system these days, back then, the needle had to be aligned with the phonograph groove in order to be played. Getting things lined up just right does allow for being “in the groove”–feeling groovy?

 

In Hot Water
Why is it being in trouble means “you are in hot water?” Soaking in a hot bath, or hot tub is actually preferred to cold ones. Then again 21st century thinking needs to be set aside for the time being to understand that if one needed to protect the castle in the 16th century, boiling water would be poured down on invaders. Thus, being in hot water means you are no doubt up to no good or about to get in trouble by getting into trouble.

In a Jam
No, this is not a reference to Winnie-the-Pooh and his penchant for getting noses and paws stuck in sweet pots. This is more like a Paul Bunyan reference of sending logs down the river to the mill and having them bulk up in a tangle and needing to straighten things out before they can get going again. All I know is we have named the office copier Bob Marley because it’s always jammin’–and that is not so sweet.

In the Nick of Time
“Has the meeting started yet?”
“Not quite–you’re in the nick of time.”

Being late to meetings is not the best way to make an impression. If you could travel in Mr. Peabody’s Way Back Machine you might earn yourself a notch or a nick in a piece of wood by showing up to the town meeting. Contrary to urban rumor St. Nick is not the patron saint of habitual tardy meeting attenders.

And so ends the 2015 collection of “Why We Say.” I leave you with one for the karaoke fans out there…

In the Limelight
No limes were hurt in the process of this blog. However, once long ago, a ball of lime helped whiten the spotlight while performers stood center stage. While I’m not sure about the technical process of lime and spotlight whitening, I do know that if someone is in the limelight they have all the attention for that time being.

 

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.

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