Pam Webb

a writer's journey as a reader

Archive for the tag “word origins”

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

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

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

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

Shilly-shally Images, Stock Photos & Vectors | Shutterstock

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Why We Say: from 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 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?”

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.

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…

“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?

Shakespeare Celeb: William’s Words

Words Shakespeare Invented
(under the guise of April’s Word Nerd Confessions)

Getty Images/Edward Gooch

image: Mental Floss

While Shakespeare was a creative wordsmith–no doubt there, it should be noted that he tended to borrow from other sources and polish them so well that they became associated more with him than the original. I cite the sonnet form, Romeo and Juliet, and Julius Caesar as starter examples.

Another aspect of polishing came to words. It’s thought Shakespeare contributed at least 1,500 words to the common language, some sources say it’s closer to 1,700. He achieved this by changing nouns into verbs or verbs into adjectives or splicing together words. Shakespeare, a marvelous source of all matter Shakespeare, has compiled a short list of some of his contributions. For further elaboration on his wordly inventions please click here.

Note: clicking on the word will take you to the play where it was used.

academe accused addiction advertising amazement
arouse assassination backing bandit bedroom
beached besmirch birthplace blanket bloodstained
barefaced blushing bet bump buzzer
caked cater champion circumstantial cold-blooded
compromise courtship countless critic dauntless
dawn deafening discontent dishearten drugged
dwindle epileptic equivocal elbow excitement
exposure eyeball fashionable fixture flawed
frugal generous gloomy gossip green-eyed
gust hint hobnob hurried impede
impartial invulnerable jaded label lackluster
laughable lonely lower luggage lustrous
madcap majestic marketable metamorphize mimic
monumental moonbeam mountaineer negotiate noiseless
obscene obsequiously ode olympian outbreak
panders pedant premeditated puking radiance
rant remorseless savagery scuffle secure
skim milk submerge summit swagger torture
tranquil undress unreal varied vaulting
worthless zany gnarled grovel

Ready for a challenge? Create a sensible sentence with as many of the above words as possible. Here’s a starter…

So–next time you reach for the skim milk, hoping you won’t be disheartened  to discover it’s worthless and sour, initiating a rant of discontent, consider a generous thanks to the Bard for providing a varied list to select from so as not to impede  your outbreak towards those accused of leaving milk past its prime in the refrigerator, because a  tranquil   kitchen produces radiance. I know, this sentence is laughableif not zany.

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 #10: of Chickens and Whistles

“George, do you think we can afford to go out to dinner and maybe take in a show? Will that be too expensive?”

“Why, Martha. The expense of going out on the town with my best girl is chicken feed. Grab your hat, darling, and let’s skeddadle downtown.”

George and Martha probably enjoyed their night out because more than likely George, being a generous fellow, had made his fortune and a spending money mattered no longer to him. In fact, a few dollars was a mere pittance, like tossing crumbs to the birds.

And that’s exactly where the expression “chicken feed” comes from–tossing small bits out at a time.  Chickens don’t have the capacity to chew up their food (ever see a chicken smile?) and must peck at small amounts. Apply that idea to money and chicken feed means a small amount of spending, not enough to worry or get choked up over.

image: not your average chicken


“Martha, are you going to be able to get that spot of gravy out of my tie? I have to look sharp for tomorrow’s presentation.”

“No worries, George. I’ll get it clean as a whistle.”

I doubt Martha was whistling was she worked on George’s tie.  Honestly, George, don’t you know gravy is just looking for the opp to drip on ties?

As for the expression “clean as whistle”, this one is pretty much as it sounds (sorry, the pun overcame the keyboard). About the time of Huck Finn and company, boys would find reeds and poke holes in them to make their whistles. The cleaner the reed, the cleaner or clearer the sound.


Why We Say: #9–Bringing On More B

Wait! Wait! We interrupt our regular programming for this late breaking news flash: Mike Allegra is running ANOTHER free doodle contest. This is a not to be missed event. Check out the details at his WordPress site:

We now return to our regular programming…

Last time I spotlighted the B section, concerning “Why We Say”, and I shall continue, since it is an absolute bounty to B-hold.

image: Nothing like a brand new item fresh from the fires of shopping

Brand New
I like to frequent thrift shops; I don’t mind the slightly used, and often  thrill over the serendipitous find. On the other hand, I do appreciate owning the brand new. Rifting through the racks, securing a purchase, and slinging my sack home–MMM, new treasure. This little book has helped me to learn the true meaning of the phrase “brand new” and it gives me pause. I first thought it might refer to the company who makes the product, as in the type, the brand.  It seems “brand” comes from the Anglo-Saxon word for “fire.” When blacksmiths forged metal products they would stamp in their mark, their brand. However, over time the mark would fade due to use and the item would no longer be “brand new.” So when my new treasure fades away it’s time for me to fire up my card and search for another brand-new-to-me something, right?

image: “hey man, can you spare some bread?”

“Quit loafing around, and get going on your homework. Get it done and you can go to the movies tomorrow.” Or some such form of bribery is said by Party B to get Party A motivated. Bribery. It’s not necessarily nestled amidst residents of the “nice” or “positive” words list. Officials caught accepting bribes make headlines. People are sometimes insulted if offers (thinly veiled “bribes”) are considered above or beneath them. Yet, you have admit bribes do serve as a motivator. Way back when, Europe perhaps, people hanging out looking for a hand out were a problem needing a solution. Wah La! Credit the French for the fix. “If you move on, you’ll receive a loaf of bread.” The French archaic term for such a form of motivator was “bribe.” So if someone is loafing around slip them some bread, presidential or whole wheat–your call.

image: Whiny brokers, in the original sense, of course, do not rock.

If you watch Hollywood movies, there is an association of stock brokers being well-versed in wining and dining to win over clients. This isn’t too far from the origin of “broker” and again we credit the French. The word “broker” once meant “one who opens wine kegs.” Later that person would sell said wine, and even act as an agent in other transactions. So when people whine to their broker about how their lackluster portfolio is, it’s all relative.

Next time we continue on with another bounty of words and origins.


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