Pam Webb

a writer's journey as a reader

Archive for the tag “Why We Say”

Why We Say: Slick as a Whistle to Southpaws


A number of familiar and unfamiliar expressions for this installment of words and phrases we use and might not have a clue why we say them.

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Slick as a Whistle: This comes from whittling whistles from reeds. Once ready to go all a person has to do is blow through the empty, sleek tube and the sound easily comes out. With a little bit of work merry music is made–pretty slick.

Slush Fund: Back in tall ship sailing days, the ship’s cook produced a fair amount of fat waste, known as “slush,” which was used to grease the masts. However, if there was any slush left over, cook had the option to sell it, thus making a bit of profit. This profit did not have to be reported. This meant the ship’s cook could fatten up his private funds with the extra slush. 

The Hello Doctor Medical Blog

Sneeze At: The expression “sneeze at” comes in a variety of forms, usually stated as, “That’s nothing to sneeze at.” When someone sneezes they make a sound without words (okay, some people actually do utter “achoo.”). When something is noted, but not worth an actual stated reply, a person might make a noise of derision, surprise, or even agreement, depending on the situation. Next time someone sneezes it might be a question of whether or not they actually are holding back their stated opinion.

Snob: A bit of linguistic history for this small word that carries a heavy message. The Scottish word “snab” means “boy” or “servant.” At a point in history, English students attending university were of the nobility and referred to the townsfolk as “snabs.” In the 1600’s Cambridge University began admitting commoners. These “snabs” had to register as Sine Nobilitate, meaning “without nobility.” This became abbreviated to S. Nob, leading to  “snob.” Snob signified being a “pretender to position.” So–attending a prestigious university like Cambridge doesn’t require nobility anymore–just smarts and funding? Education for all who can afford it? Oh, snab, how common.

Son-of-a-Gun: This stems from British sea slang. Improbable as it sounds, British Navy sailors were allowed to take their wives on long voyages. When the women gave birth they were relegated to the area beneath the guns to keep the decks clear. The term came to be a backhanded reference to being a soldier or sailor’s child. Today it’s often an expression of surprise, encouragement, or even an euphemism for stronger reference towards someone’s standing.

Southpaw | Netflix

Southpaw:  Left-handed folk are sometimes referred to as southpaws. Why?  Major league baseball diamonds have an east facing layout so batters will have the afternoon sun at their back, making it easier to see the ball being pitched. This means when the pitcher faces the batter he faces west and his left arm faces south. If he pitches left-handed he pitches with his south hand or paw. Are right-handed folk north paws?

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.

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.

Comic Strip

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: Learn by Heart to Lump It


An enlightening resource of why we say

Learn by heart: Think back–are there any poems that you had to learn in school, ones that you still remember and can recite? That, my friend, is an example of memorizing, which the Greeks considered learning by heart since they thought the heart, not the mind, was the seat of thought. Learn by mind, doesn’t quite have the same ring, does it? Maybe it’s because the heart is the seat of emotion and when we learn something with our heart, we feel it more.

Lick into shape: Summer is here, I’ve got some time off from work, so I’m going to take on the weeding and really lick the yard into shape. Getting something that is somewhat messy, into a more acceptable form is the usual connotation behind this expression. In actuality? It was once thought that bear cubs were born shapeless and in order to form them up into respectable bear, the mother had to literally lick them into shape. No–I am not going to apply that particular technique to beautifying my yard.

Lily-livered: To be called a coward is one thing, but to be called a lily-livered coward–oh, the shame. The Greeks, once again, possessed an interesting anatomically belief. They believed the liver, not the heart, held passion [see above about learn by heart], and the bile produced indicated a person’s disposition: dark bile indicated strong passion; light bile indicated weakness. However, white bile or lily colored bile meant the person had no courage at all. My question is: how did a person produce the bile? Maybe I don’t want to know. Actually, I don’t want to know at all.

Lock, stock, and barrel: When something is completed this expression is often shared, as in, “I packed up the camper for the trip–everything’s ready to go–lock, stock, and barrel. This expression goes back to the days when depending on a gun being ready to go, as in the three parts: the lock (firing mechanism), the main piece (stock), and barrel, had to pass a readiness check.

Lump it: “You can like it or lump it.” If you have participated in a quarrel, sibling quarrels are a good example, this expression might get tossed out. It refers to how faces are a bit misshapen after crying. If someone doesn’t get their way, they might have a good cry or pout, making their face look lumpy. Basically, accept the situation or get bent out of shape (which is probably another Why We Say investigative entry).

Which expressions are in your vernacular range?

Are they all too old-fashioned?

Is there an expression that you are ever so glad the puzzle of meaning has been revealed?

Why We Say: from Horse Sense to Knuckle Under


April zipped by without the input of the usual “Why We Say” feature, in which investigation of common (or uncommon sayings) are explored. Let’s make up for lost time and continue through the “H” entries from the handy little book Dictionary of Word Origins by Jordan Almond:

Horse Sense
For those of you who remember the show, it can be agreed Mister Ed was one smart horse; however, when someone is tagged with having horse sense, it’s not referring to the horse but to the horse trader. Horse traders could be fairly savvy in their business dealings.

How do you do?
A holdover phrase from “back then” days when “do” meant “fare” which transcribes to performing in a particular situation, which better translates as “doing.” With all that said, we are actually saying to someone “How is it going with you?”

Hunky-Dory
From the Dutch word honk which means “safe” or to achieve a goal in a game, comes the expression meaning everything is all right. The “dory” part is a bit of a guess.

Idiot
Derived from the Greek, the original meaning concerns itself with a private citizen who held no public office. Since the Greeks thought it honorable to hold office, and if someone couldn’t take part in public affairs, well then, they must be an “idiot.”

Too Many Irons in the Fire
A blacksmith knows how to keep his business going, and will have several pieces of iron heating in the fire, ready to place on the anvil; however, too many irons in the fire are difficult to watch, and problems could arise from not tending them properly.

I don’t think he is actually a blacksmith…

Josh
“I’m just joshing you.” If you have heard that expression you are hearing a derivative of the Scottish word “joss” which means “to jostle” or to “push around.” Comedian Josh Billings furthered the meaning. So, if someone is joshing you they are pushing you around in a humorous way.

Kit and Kaboodle
“Boedel” in Dutch means “effects” or what a person owns. Thieves breaking into a house would steal the “boodle” they found and carried it away in their bags or “kits.” If the robbers made a clean getaway, they might brag that they made off with “kit and boodle,” which became “kit and kaboodle.”

Knuckle Under
A knuckle is a joint, any joint–yet, in this expression the referenced joint was the knee, and to “knuckle under” was to bow down in submission.

Well, we are caught up, rushing two months worth of everyday and odd expressions from H to K. Which expression caught you by surprise?

Why We Say: Hippos to Hopscotch


Did you know

That “hippopotamus” is derived from the Greek potamos (river) and hippo (horse)? Which means the hippo is actually considered a river horse. I do not advise saddling one.

Image result for saddle on a hippopotamus
pinterest.com

Those who “hit it off” are “striking the scent”, as in the hunting terminology of old. This means people who get along must have common scents.

When people “hobnob” together they are participating in “have and not have” which is another way of saying “give and take”–aptly applied to conversing.

Image result for hobnobbing

That you are mispronouncing “hodge podge” since it is derived from “hotchpotch” which is a stew comprised of this and that.

When referring to a crook as a “hoodlum” you are referring to a San Francisco gang-leader by the name of Muldoon? Because the reporter reversed the spelling to “Noodlum” and the typesetter could not read his writing, he set it up as “Hoodlum.” Good handwriting is important when spelling out bad crooks.

That “hopscotch” is actually “hop scratch” since “scotch” is another word for “scratch”? The child’s game is based on hopping over the scratches made in the dirt. I am hoping you aren’t scratching your head over this one

Image result for hopscotch
retroland.com

Next time we continue with the exploration of “h” phrases ranging from “horse sense” to “hussy.” Stay tuned…

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.

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…

 

 

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