Pam Webb

a writer's journey as a reader

Archive for the tag “Why We Say”

How Cliché: “B” List part two

A collection of everyday sayings from Christine Ammer’s Have a Nice Day–No Problem: A Dictionary of Clichés.

Beggars can’t be choosers
If one is in need, being selective isn’t always an option, an adage which remains today. This expression of not being overly particular has two possible beginnings. John Heywood’s 1546 proverb collection is one, and Thomas fuller’s version (1732) “Beggars and Borrowers must be no Chusers” is another.

Behind the scenes
A term originating from seventeenth and eighteenth century theater where violent action took place behind the scenery. The idea of activity, especially secrets or hidden information taking place out of the public view, was summed up in the phrase of “behind the scenes.”

6,846 Behind The Scenes Stock Photos, Pictures & Royalty-Free Images -  iStock
What can’t be seen might be a scene not meant to be seen

Betting one’s bottom dollar
Being very certain of something is the general meaning. This mid-nineteenth century phrase refers to gambling, when a person referred to betting the last of their gambling chips, or the bottom of their stack.

The Big Cheese
The Boss. The Head Person. The origins are solid on this phrase. It’s thought to be nineteenth century American slang American. The word could be derived from the Persian or Urdu word chiz or cheez which means “thing.” It’s also thought it’s a derivation of the word “chief.”

The big cheese Royalty Free Vector Clip Art illustration
The Big Cheese: what rates as the chosen cheese?

Bite the bullet
Facing a painful situation might have come from those wounded in battle who had to face treatment without anesthesia and would bite down on a bullet to bear the pain. Rudyard Kipling has the line “Bite on the bullet, old man, and don’t let them think you’re afraid,” in his 1891 The Light That Failed. P.J. Wodehouse wrote the line in his 1923 The Inimitable Jeeves, “Brace up and bite the bullet. I’m afraid I have bad news.”

Bite the dust
To become defeated, even to one’s death conjures visions of old Western films where either the cowboys or the Indians fell in the fight to the dusty ground. In actuality this phrase has much earlier roots, as it is found in Homer’s Iliad, “…his fellow warriors…fall round him to the earth and bite the dust.”

Black sheep
To be a sheep culled out of the flock due to having wool that could not be dyed became an application for people. Sir Walter Scott wrote in 1816, “The curates know best the black sheep of the flock.” This later became known as “the black sheep of the family” referring to that one family member who stood out as an undesirable or had unacceptable characteristics.

The Black Sheep Gospel | Toko-pa's Official Website
“Just another baaaad label”

Blood is thicker than water
Family relationships being considered more valued than other bonds comes from the Middle Ages application that water will evaporate, becoming invisible, with no trace of existence; however, blood, even when dried leaves its mark, implying how blood ties are essential is still relevant today.

Break the ice
Originally this referred to how it was necessary to break up the ice so ships could sail through the water. Special vessels called “icebreakers” cleared away the ice and by the sixteenth century this term became more figurative than literal. Shakespeare applied this phrase, among other authors.

10 Common Phrases We Should Thank Shakespeare For
Kate broke more than ice in this farcical play

Business as usual
Carrying on, even when circumstances are difficult might have come from the practice of businesses posting a notice that stated that they would continue operating despite circumstances such as fire, flood, construction or other situations that might indicate not being available. Winston Churchill applied this idea in his November 1914 speech when he stated “The maxim of the British people ‘Business as usual,” which became a slogan for World War I.

Projects vs. BAU(Business as Usual) – Nic
Carry On, It’s Business as Usual

By the book
To strictly follow the rules is thought to originate from established criteria, as found in religious applications. This idea could be found in literature such as Edgar Allan Poe’s 1841 The Murders in the Rue Morgue, “To have a retentive memory, and to proceed ‘by the book,” as a reference to the game whist.

By the same token
In the fifteenth century into the 1600s a “token” was a sign or symbol and “by the same token” had the meaning of “for the same reason” or “on the same grounds.” After 1600 “by the same token” referred to “the proof of this being…”, leading Charles Dickens to write in 1857, “Others caused large Fires to be made…; by the same token that two or three were please d to set their house on Fire…”

What sayings surprised you in their origin?

Why We Say: X-Y-Z

Photo by Tara Winstead on

It’s here. We’ve reached the end of the book, Dictionary of Word Origins: A History of the Words, Expressions, and Clichés We Use by Jordan Almond. Let’s finish this out.

X-Ray: It’s called an “X-Ray” because the scientist, by the name of Roentgen, preferred it. We could be calling it the “Roentgen ray” but he had the better idea. He used “X” because it symbolizes the unknown and Roentgen did not understand how his discovery worked.

Yankee: Can you imagine calling the New York Yankees the New York Cheeses? Who wants to root for a cheesy team? Yankee is a Dutch nickname “Jan Kass,” which means “John Cheese.” Besides tulips, Holland is known for its cheeses so calling someone a “Yankee” makes sense, right? Not yet? Let’s go further. Back in the time of pirates, English sailors called Dutch pirates “Yankees.” It wasn’t a compliment. They were probably called them cheeseheads–definitely insulting. When the Dutch settled in New York, for some reason, began calling the English settlers of Connecticut “Yankee.” It came to be a term referring to dislike, especially to those in colonies further North. What does this do with baseball teams? Not sure, but I’m open to suggestions.

Zany: A type of Italian play, Comedia dell’ arte, consisting of comic performance was referred to as zani. This transfers to clowning around or being “zany.”

Why We Say: from Villain to Windfall

Villains are the bad guys, right? During medieval times when manor houses were kept by feudal lords villains referred to “one attached to the villa” or the manor house. Now a lord, the one who owns the manor house would or should be considered a good guy, right? Wealthy, taking part in civic responsibilities, watching over the land, helping the poor and needy. Apparently not all lords were good guys and villain took on the meaning of bad guy.

Villain - Wikipedia
“Mwah ha ha”

Go to a library and there will be volumes of books just waiting to be read. By why call them volumes? In ancient times books were written on sheets of paper and then rolled up, much like a window shade is rolled up. Ah–“volume” is derived from the Latin volvere meaning “to roll up.” Next time you are feeling the need to read roll up with a volume in your favorite reading spot.

Volume (bibliography) - Wikipedia
Books? Volumes (go for the erudite)

Feeling the last attempt to succeed was a wash out? Thank the nineteenth century British soldiers for this term alluding to failure. As the soldiers practiced their marksmanship by shooting at targets, bad shots were erased by painting over the targets with whitewash. A “wash out” took on the meaning of failure or disappointment.

Sometimes our best shot needs a redo

No one wants to be the wet blanket, especially at a party. But why a wet blanket? Well, a wet blanket puts out a fire and a person who is not into the fun zone essentially puts out the good times at a gathering.

More 100 Wet blanket Synonyms. Similar words for Wet blanket.
Wet Blanket goes by other terms, too

Ever go on a wild goose chase? There is no real winner, but it was once considered a game. Riders would follow the lead rider with all the riders following like geese in flight. The leader set the pace and each rider had to follow and repeat the rider’s actions accurately. The game was a chase with no winner which ends up as a wild run with no true outcome.

A Wild Goose Chase!: Morris, Lynne, Morris, Lynne: 9781953177056: Books
No doubt there are plenty of variations

Villains, wash outs, wild goose chases–time for a positive saying. How about receiving an unexpected bit of good fortune, such as a windfall? In Old English days people were required to leave the forest timber for the Royal Navy; however, if any trees were felled by the wind they could gather up the storm’s leavings. There you go–bad weather can bring good tidings.

windfall - definition and meaning
When the wind falls a tree does someone yell “timber?”

Which sayings were a surprise to you in their original form?

Why We Say: from Under the Weather to Upper Crust


“Are you all right?”

“Just a bit under the weather?”

This exchange is usually related to someone feeling a bit ill, and someone noticing it. Why “under the weather” not “in the weather” or even “weathering through it?” The idea goes back to the situation of when a new recruit on a ship gets seasick. Hanging out and over the rail can involve facing the wind, so it makes sense to get out of the wind by crouching under the bulwarks or getting under the weather. Perhaps the next time you’re feeling queasy consider ducking down and nodding your head “yes.”

Up to Scratch

Who would have thought meeting someone’s expectations would have developed from not throwing a punch too soon. In older prize fighting days a line was marked on the ground and the fighters met there. However, if either one stepped over the line they would be disqualified since they were expected to meet up to the scratch.

Boxing - Wikipedia
Wikipedia image: these blokes are not up to scratch

Up to Snuff

Speaking of being up to scratch, there is also being up to snuff–no fighting involved. This saying stems from how the sense of smell is one of our most sensitive senses. Think about when you have a cold, the sense of smell is dampened. Therefore, if someone is feeling well then it means they can sniff well or is that they are up to snuffing.

Vintage Im Up To Snuff Pinback Button. Pin Back Button. | Etsy
image: Etsy–the saying is cute as a button

Upper Crust

They say upper society is the upper crust. Crust of what? Bread. At that time in history the best part of the bread was the crust, so those of the upper class could afford the best, especially bread. And if the best of the bread is the top part of the bread then the upper class, the top of society is the upper crust.

Upper Crust Breads

Why We Say: from Take the Cake to Turn Down

Moving into the T-section and there are some familiar sayings that have a surprising meaning. Ready?

First off–

How many times have you heard the expression “Well, doesn’t that just take the cake?” as a response to something remarkable or perhaps foolish?

Take The Cake - Brainless Tales
Some have their cake and eat it, too.

Back in the day, in the South, when cakewalks accompanied barbeques, picnics, and box suppers, there was an event in which men showed off their style by “cutting a caper.” The one judged to do the best strutting received the prize of walking off with the choice of the best cake–and maybe the one who baked it.

Getting the third degree brings up connotations of being grilled severely by authorities, usually the police. The background on this term is derived from Freemasonry. A candidate looking to move up to the “third degree” had to pass a rigorous test. This testing process was supposedly so grueling, both physically and emotionally, that the “third degree” became associated with undergoing an arduous experience.

The Third Degree Techniques of Coerced Confessions, before 1930 - Coerced  Confessions CRJA 3400
Can I pass on passing this test?

After services are rendered it’s customary to provide a monetary gratuity, known as a “tip.” This practice stems from old English inns and taverns when patrons dropped a coin in the box attached to the wall for the servers. The sign on the box? “To Insure Promptness” or “T.I.P.” for short. : BB INC Tip Box Acrylic Money Storage Container Tip Jar :  Office Products

Being called a “toady” is certainly no compliment, as it refers to a person being subservient to another, better known as being the “yes” man. The background on this term goes back to long ago magic acts that featured the magician’s apprentice or helper eating a, umm, ready for this–a toad. Why? Toads were considered poisonous. The magician then proved his magic by “curing” his assistant. Saying “yes” to eating a toad is probably not the best job in the world.

More 70 Toady to Synonyms. Similar words for Toady to.

Being loyal or devoted to a cause might conjure up the term “true blue.” Two possible meanings for the expression. One is from when butchers hid the bloody stains of their trade on their deep blue aprons and jackets. Perhaps the blue signified their pride in their chosen trade. The other derived meaning is that blue was the preferred color of the pro-Parliament Scottish Presbyterian Party of the seventeenth century as a contrast to the royal red. Hmm, the blue-red contrast has a deep history.

Sacred, Sad And Salacious: With Many Meanings, What Is True Blue? : NPR
True Blue can also be a purposed style choice

Few people relish being “turned down”–rejection is tough stuff. The expression has two possible explanations. One being the custom of turning over a drink glass when no more rounds are appreciated (messy if the glass is half full, or is that half empty?). The other explanation is another old custom. This one involves reflection upon rejection due to a mirror being the key to a marriage proposal. A young man would arrive with his “courting mirror,” which held his image. He would place it on the table face up to indicate he was proposing marriage. If accepted, the young lady would smile at the image and all was happiness. If she did not accept his proposal then she would turn the image face down and the “turn down” probably caused the young man to reflect upon his rejection.

What is a turn-down service? - English Language Learners Stack Exchange
Then there are other meanings of “turn down”

Why We Say: from Spitting Image to

As we close up the “S” section of Why We Say certain phrases there will be found some interesting sayings to explore.

Spitting Image: When someone says, “He’s the spittin’ image of…” there is an understanding the reference is the two people are very similar in appearance. In fact, there is such a remblance that their “spit” is alike. This might stem from how sons wanting to resemble their fathers would act like them, right down to “spittin'” like Dad.

Spruce Up: To “spruce up” indicates someone is changing their clothes, their appearance for the better. “Spruce” means “like the Prussians,” which comes from the French word for Prussia, Prusse.” To “spruce up” then, is to dress like a Prussian.

Hmm, shall we spruce up a little before heading out on the town?

Stamping Ground: Sometimes known as “stomping ground,” the term refers to a known, familiar area, where people congregate. In actuality, animals, such as deer, that gather in familiar areas, do so often enough to leave the imprints of their stamping hooves, creating a stamping or stomping ground.

Just hanging out, deer…

Steal One’s Thunder: Nope, this is not about Thor or his hammer. This is about Dennis the playwright, who in 1700 invented a machine that duplicated the sound of thunder. This was no doubt handy for plays needing some celestial angst. Unfortunately, the machine proved so successful that others coveted it, essentially “stealing his thunder.” Today, taking one’s due away is like taking away their ability to make some noise about themselves. Just ask Thor about when Loki took his thunder away.

Dude, don’t mess with my hammer.

Stickler: Familiar with Rabbit from Winnie-the-Pooh and how he is a bit of a fussbudget about getting it all exactly right? He would be considered a stickler. In Middle English stightlen means “to set in order.” Sticklers had the role of making sure all was set to rights at duels, that the rules were followed. Today, someone who is determined to make sure all is as it should be is a “stickler” for rules.

Stogie: Cigars, like them or despise them have come a long way from their first form. Stogies are from the Conestoga wagon, built in the Conestoga valley in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania. The wagon drivers would roll up tobacco leaves and roll them up to smoke when on long trips. Conestoga is a bit of a mouthful, so it became shortened to “stogie.”

Stumped: Can’t figure it out? Don’t have an answer? You might be stumped. If you are stumped, you are outwitted. If you are playing cricket you would be the pitcher having succeeded in hitting the wicket or “stump,” thus outwitting the batter.

Outwitting the stump, is rather cricket…

Well, any surprises?

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.

Chiff and Fipple Forums • View topic - The "friscalittu", the sicilian reed  whistle

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?

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