Etymology is an in-exacting science with no accepted methodology or rule book. No undergraduate university degrees I know of are conferred on the origins of words and phrases.
But it is, to me, an interesting study.
New words are added to every major language every year… for example check out chineseetymology. Yeap, that’s a word. English is seeping into Mandarin, especially on digital matters, music and Hollywood. Thank you very much. You don’t find Mandarin seeping into our everyday English, do you? Wal-Mart, yes. Our language, no.
Here in the great US of A, most etymology research is a Ouija board process that often produces different definitions. Rarely is there a definitive, absolute single origin to a word phrase, certainly not for those phrases that have passed down over the decades.
So take what follows as just possibilities. Others exist. These are just my choices often of several out there.
WHEN YOU GET TO A FORK IN THE ROAD, TAKE IT.
No question here. That wise turn of phrase was originated by Yogi Berra, God Rest His Soul. The best phrase maker of my generation.
Not trying to suggest exactly what he means, what went into his making of this phrase, but I know what he means.
A SHOT OF WHISKEY
(16 million google hits) In the old west a .45 cartridge for a six-gun cost 12 cents, so did a glass of whiskey. If a cowhand was low on cash he would often give the bartender a cartridge in exchange for a drink. This became known as a “shot” of whiskey.
Anagram: Sweaty Fish Hook
ARMED TO THE TEETH
(30 million google hits) Medieval warriors were often so laden with weapons that sometimes they would have to carry one in their teeth. And as a last resort they’d bite you. So be careful of people with big teeth.
Anagram: Mothered the teat
AT ONE FELL SWOOP
(1.6 million google hits) The phrase originally meant ‘swift and brutal murder’, and was first used in Macbeth. Macduff utters the words on hearing of the death of his wife and children. A ‘swoop’ is the sudden descent of a bird of prey on its victim. ‘Fell’ is from the Old French word fel, meaning ‘merciless’.
BALLS TO THE WALL
(69 million google hits) It’s derives from aviation. The ‘balls’ sat on top of the levers controlling the throttle and fuel mixtures. Pushing them forward toward the front wall of the cockpit made the plane go faster.
Anagram: Lethal Owl Blast
(2.5 million google hits) Bandy was a medieval bat-and-ball game, similar to hockey. To ‘bandy’ words is to knock them back and forth as one would bandy a ball.
Anagram: do a baby nut
(30 million google hits) Heavy freight was moved along the Mississippi in large barges pushed by steamboats later tugboats. Sometimes this was like pushing a rope and these barges became hard to control and would swing into piers or other boats. People would say they “barged in”.
This has often precipitated “Road Rage.” Which has sometimes led to “Murder One.” That has led to “Hard Time.” Which has brought on thoughts of a “wasted life….. ” if they just hadn’t of “barged in.”
BARRELS OF OIL
(51 million google hits) When the first oil wells were drilled they had made no provision for storing the liquid so they used water barrels. That is why, to this day, we speak of barrels of oil rather than gallons.
Anagram: Liberal roofs
(700 thousand google hits) In the 1920s there was a great craze for this type animal + body part construction. There were loads of them — elephant’s wrist, eel’s ankles, bullfrog’s beard — but only two have survived into the modern age: bee’s knees and cat’s pajamas.
(32 million google hits) Meaning to demand money by threats, usually involving violence or the exposing of secrets, the phrase originated in the Scottish Highlands in the 1600s. The ‘mail’ in blackmail is from the old Scottish word for rent, usually spelled either ‘maill’ or ‘male’. In those days rent was paid in silver coins – known as ‘white money’ or ‘white maill’. When Highland clan chiefs began a protection racket, threatening farmers with violence if they didn’t pay, this additional rent became known as ‘black money’. As such ‘blackmaill’ was used to describe the practice of obtaining money by threat of violence. During the 1900s, when criminals first began demanding money not to divulge a person’s secrets, the word ‘blackmail’ was adopted to describe this.
BUYING THE FARM
(81.5 million google hits) This is synonymous with dying. During WW1 soldiers were given life insurance policies worth $5,000. This was about the price of an average farm so if you died you “bought the farm” for your survivors.
CAT GOT YOUR TONGUE
(6 million google hits) The English Navy used to use a whip called “Cat-o’-nine-tails” for flogging. The pain was so severe that it caused the victim to stay quiet for a long time. Another possible source could be from ancient Egypt, where liars’ and blasphemers’ tongues were cut out and fed to the cats. However it’s first found in print in an 1881 edition of the US illustrated paper Ballou’s Monthly Magazine, Volume 53: “Has the cat got your tongue, as the children say?” That would indicate only children of the Civil War period know the real meaning.
(11 million google hits) The word “curfew” comes from the French phrase “couvre-feu”, which means “cover the fire”. It was used to describe the time of blowing out all lamps and candles. It was later adopted into Middle English as “curfeu”, which later became the modern “curfew”. In the early American colonies homes had no real fireplaces so a fire was built in the center of the room. In order to make sure a fire did not get out of control during the night it was required that, by an agreed upon time, all fires would be covered with a clay pot called-a “curfew.”
DICKENS TO PAY
(6.5 million google hits) Often used as a threat, “there will be Dickens to pay” is not actually related to 19th-century author Charles Dickens, as popular belief would have it. As long ago as the 16th century the word ‘Devil’ was, in fact, ‘Devilkin’ and having ‘the devilkin to pay’ meant a passage straight to Hell for one’s crimes. Back then, Devilkin was pronounced ‘Dickens’, as evidenced by the line ‘I cannot tell what the Dickens his name was’, from The Merry Wives Of Windsor by one William Shakespeare, written in 1601 – more than 200 years before Charles Dickens was born.
FLASH IN THE PAN
(54 million google hits) You’d think it has something to do with panning for gold… Nevertheless, gold prospecting isn’t the origin of ‘a flash in the pan’. The phrase did have a literal meaning, that is, it derives from a real flash in a real pan, but not a prospector’s pan. Flintlock muskets used to have small pans to hold charges of gunpowder. An attempt to fire the musket in which the gunpowder flared up without a bullet being fired was a ‘flash in the pan’.
(11 million google hits) Meaning the whole amount available, there are several suggestions for its origin but the earliest can be traced back to the turn of the century, and the tailor Montague Burton (these days shortened to Burtons). In 1904 the tailor established their first hire shop in Chesterfield, making it possible for men to hire a suit for special occasions, and also to hire a complete outfit of suit, shirt, tie, shoes and socks. Those opting for the complete outfit were known to be wearing the ‘Full Monty’ (as in Montague). A US equivalent might be the phrase “the whole nine yards”, “the whole ball of wax”, “the whole enchilada”, “the whole shebang” or “the whole hog”. Since the 1997 release of the film The Full Monty, which features a group of men in Sheffield learning to become striptease performers, the phrase has come to mean – over all else – a person removing every item of their clothing and standing naked for all to view.
(286 thousand hits on google. Getting Fired has 146 million) Initial meaning was to lose your job, or be discharged from duty. This expression dates back to the days when craftsmen and laborers would travel for work, sometimes working on a project for just a few days before moving on. Before toolboxes these workers would carry the tools of their trade around in a large sack, which their employer would hold for safe keeping, and be returned when their services were no longer needed. As opposed to “getting fired,” which was to be disgraced and left unable to work, being given the sack meant workers could simply carry their tools to another place of work. Today getting fired has taken over mostly to mean losing your job. Nowadays getting sacked happens when a quarterback has a poor offensive line.
GO THE WHOLE NINE YARDS
(1 million google hits) American fighter planes in WW2 had machine guns that were fed by a belt of cartridges. The average plane held belts that were 27 feet (9 yards) long. If the pilot used up all his ammo he was said to have given it the whole nine yards.
Anagram: Liens hydrogenate how?
GO WITH THE FLOW
(541 million google hits) Meaning to put objections aside and follow the majority, the phrase is often thought to be of American origin, but is in fact Roman. Marcus Aurelius was crowned Emperor of Rome on 7 March 161. During a turbulent reign beset by war, Marcus dealt with his turmoil through intellectual thought and philosophy, much of which is expressed in his writings The Meditations. Marcus’s philosophy is based around the flow of thought and the flow of happiness, and led him to conclude that ‘all things flow naturally’, and that it was better to ‘go with the flow’ rather than try to change the natural course of events.
GOING FOR A SONG
(464 million google hits) Used to indicate that something is cheap and priced well below its true value. The phrase originates with a long poem, rather than a song, called ‘The Faerie Queene’, presented to Queen Elizabeth I by Edmund Spenser. It was regarded as Spenser’s most popular work, but Lord Burleigh, the Lord High Treasurer, was unimpressed. When he heard the Queen intended to pay Spenser £100 for the work, he famously exclaimed, ‘What! All this for a song?’ The Queen, much to Burleigh’s dismay, insisted the money was handed over. The incident was widely reported and the phrase became English slang, although meaning of low value instead of high, due to the pennies and small change people would toss to buskers and singers entertaining in old London town.
GOT UP ON THE WRONG SIDE OF THE BED
(27 million google hits) A phrase we use when someone is being grumpy or bad tempered during the day. Pure superstition of course, but in the olden days, people thought that evil spirits lay during the night on a particular side of the bed (Zuul, etc). It was unlucky to emerge in the morning on that side as it would mean those evil spirits and their influence would possess the body during its waking hours, and this would only be put right the following dawn by not repeating the mistake. The wrong side, incidentally, is the left-hand side. The Romans were well known for their superstitions about left-sided things being evil, so this is probably all their fault. Also this expression alludes to the ancient superstition that it was bad luck to put one’s left foot down first, and was so used in a number of 17th-century plays. Possibly your life has turned out so rotten because you started each day on the wrong foot.
(48 million google hits) Used to describe three of anything, though most often associated with goals scored by footballers, the origin of the phrase is actually found in cricket. In the tradition of the early game, any bowler dismissing three batsmen with three consecutive deliveries would be awarded a new cricket cap by his team in honor of the achievement, which became known as a ‘hat trick’. Such a feat is rarely seen on a cricket pitch, but the phrase passed over into soccer and hockey, where witnessing a hat trick is more common.
(650 thousand google hits) Steamboats carried both people and animals. Since pigs smelled so bad they would be washed before being put on board. The mud and other filth that was washed off was considered useless “hog wash”.
Anagram: Hillary Clinton
(290 thousand google hits) It’s an improper pronunciation of the Greek word melimuthos, meaning ‘honeyed speech’. Found particular among Duke University graduates, because graduates of UNC have never once seen the word “honeyed” before. Too sophistic. Which in turn is a mealy mouthed concept. Which is endemic to Duke University conversation, like between the two grads pictured above.
(36 million google hits) Nothing to do with mothers. It’s derived from the German word for mumble, mummeln. Hundreds of years ago people played a dice game called mumchance, which was played in complete silence.
I DON’T GIVE A FLYING RABBIT
(7.5 million google hits). It is surprising that google has this many possible links to this phrase, when there is only one origin. And that is, “I just don’t care.” First used by funny and sassy Mrs John Vogel aka “BJ” (former Betty Jo Jones nee Betty Jo Denton) of Sanford, North Carolina when asked in 1990 about Washington politics.
IN A NUTSHELL
(29 million google hits) When something is explained in as few words as possible. Many moons ago, important documents were carried around in walnut shells, which would then be bound and kept waterproof. Often the documents would be shortened versions that still covered the important points, but there are also examples of long and celebrated works being written in such small handwriting the document would still fit inside the shell of a walnut. If you believe this, I got some mountain property to sell you in Afghanistan.
Shakespeare seems the more probable answer… when he alluded to the ‘something compact’ idea of ‘nutshell’ when he gave Hamlet the line: I could be bounded in a nutshell, and count myself a king of infinite space, were it not that I have bad dreams.
The figurative use of ‘in a nutshell’ to mean specifically ‘in few concise words’ didn’t emerge until the 19th century. Thackeray used it in print in The Second Funeral of Napoleon, 1841: “Here, then, in a nutshell, you have the whole matter.” But listen if you’re really want some good mountain property, a know a guy in Kabul.
IGNORANCE IS BLISS
(8 million google hits) Used to suggest that lack of knowledge equals lack of concern. Though now associated with impoliteness or arrogance, the original context of the phrase was one of limited knowledge and the innocence of youth. Thomas Gray alluded to this meaning in his 1747 poem ‘Ode On A Distant Prospect Of Eton College’ in the lines ‘Thought would destroy their paradise / No more where ignorance is bliss / Tis folly to be wise’.
LET THE CAT OUT OF THE BAG
(24 million google hits) Now taken to mean that a secret or spoiler has been revealed, the phrase originated in market stall deceptions played on unsuspecting buyers in medieval days. Thinking they were purchasing a suckling piglet, the buyer would be distracted by the vendor while an associate substituted the piglet for a cat and bagged it up ready to be carried home, The deception would only be revealed when the buyer arrived home and let a ‘cat out of the bag’. Cannot believe this happened that often, though. Do you?
Anagram: Beef cattle to a fault.
MAD AS A HATTER
(11 million google hits) A term used to describe someone with unpredictable behavior. Popularized by the character from Alice’s Adventures In Wonderland, the phrase actually originated hundreds of years before Lewis Carroll wrote his novel. In the Middle Ages making felt hats involved the use of a highly toxic substance called mercurous nitrate. This acid was known to cause trembling in people, leading to the assumption they were mad or crazy. In the 17th century tales were told of Robert Crab, an eccentric easily identified by his distinctive hat and known to locals as ‘the mad hatter’, who gave all his wealth to the poor and lived off grass, berries and dock leaves foraged from the countryside.
Anagram: Hillary Clinton
MAKE THE GRADE
(317 million google hits) Nothing to do with sitting exams. ‘Grade’ is short for ‘gradient’. The expression derives from railroad construction in 19th century America. Careful calculations had to be made to ensure engines didn’t encounter sudden steep gradients.
MY EARS ARE BURNING
(26 million google hits) It goes back to the ancient Romans, who had a strange obsession with burning sensations in various organs. If your left ear tingled, it signaled evil intent from outside influences. If your right ear tingled, you were being praised or were in line for some good luck. Nowadays, if you nose itches someone is thinking about you. If you see stars someone has hit you. If you see pink elephants you are drunk. If it smells bad, you have wandered onto the Duke campus.
CAN’T HOLD A CANDLE (to someone)
(11 million google hits) Used when a person is not in the same league is another, and should not be working in the same place. This phrase is traceable to the days before electric lighting, when craftsmen would employ unskilled labor (usually children) to hold candles illuminating their work. Being told one wasn’t fit to ‘hold the candle’ was an insult usually reserved for an inferior craftsman or street entertainer.
Anagram: On handed catcall.
OVER A BARREL
(62 million google hits) In the days before CPR a drowning victim would be placed face down over a barrel and the barrel would be rolled back and forth in an effort to empty the lungs of water. It was rarely effective. If you are over a barrel you are in deep trouble. Or… it might date back to the Spanish inquisition. A form of torture was to suspend someone over a barrel of boiling oil. If you didn’t agree to the demands, you’d be dropped in.
(6 million google hits) A job considered to be one of the best and most important a person can have. During the 1600s the slang term in England for £1,000 was ‘plum’, much like £500 is known as a ‘monkey’ these days. Back then £1,000 was a seriously large amount of money but it was the fixed amount some politicians received for government roles. This was considered by the working man to be a lot of money for doing very little, and as such these posts became known as ‘plum jobs’. These days the phrase is more often used in admiration rather than the contempt it started with. These jobs should not be confused with other type “… jobs,” the exact titles not to be used here… but you know what I mean.
PULL OUT ALL THE STOPS
(42 million google hits) The ‘stops’ are knobs on an organ console. If the organist pulled them all out, he would be squeezing the most volume out of the instrument possible.
(8 million google hits) Meaning a false or misleading clue, often in a detective story. The origin of the phrase lies not in the sea, but on the fox hunts of the 1800s. But first, the herring. In the 18th century herring was one of the most widely caught fish in the seas around Britain. Sans-electricity, it would be preserved by salting and smoking, turning the herring a deep brownish red, and giving it a particularly pungent smell. In protest at what some people thought was the barbaric practice of hunting foxes on horseback and with the use of hounds, wily and cunning fox lovers would drag the strong-smelling fish along the hunt route and away from the foxes on hunt days. Confused hounds then followed the scent of the ‘red herring’ rather than that of the fox. So effective was this tactic that the phrase passed into common English usage. Which reminds that I once ran for sheriff of Moore Country, NC. Most contentious issue at the time? Using dogs to hunt deer. No middle ground. You were either for it or against it. You were either a good ol’ boy, or you had learned liberal nonsense at Duke.
RUB THE WRONG WAY
Early Americans, during the colonial times, would ask their servants to rub their oak floorboards “the right way”. The wrong way (not wiping them with dry fabric after wet fabric) would cause streaks to form and ruin it, leaving the homeowner annoyed. Alternatively, it could have derived from rubbing a cat’s fur the “wrong way,” which annoys them. I’m tired of looking up the number of google hits. So if you’re interested, you probably know how to do it yourself.
RULE OF THUMB
A rough estimate based on experience rather than formal calculation, the expression has been in wide use since the late 1600s. There are several possible origins, most infamously a law from the middle ages allowing a man to beat his wife with a cane no thicker than his thumb (as documented in the Biographical Dictionary Of The Judges Of England written by Edward Foss in 1864). The actual origin is much older. Romans used the tip of the thumb (from the knuckle upward) as a unit of measurement, as any thumb would fit roughly 12 times into the next unit of measurement, a foot. The French word for inches is ‘pouces’, which translates as ‘thumb’, meaning the rule of thumb remained a standard unit of measurement until metrification.
Means to escape punishment or avoid the consequences. The origin of the phrase is Scandinavian, not Scottish, and the word ‘scot’ meaning ‘payment’. Around the 13th century a great municipal tax called ‘scot’ was imposed on the Scandinavian people. All households were required to pay according to their means but the peasants were exempt. They were known as ‘scot-free’. In England the scot tax lasted in some places for hundreds of years, finally petering out during the Westminster electoral reforms in 1836.
Anagram: Soft, erect… which is an oxymoron, like pretty ugly or Good Duke or Honest Hillary.
SHIP STATE ROOMS
Traveling by steamboat was considered the height of comfort. Passenger cabins on the boats were not numbered. Instead they were named after states. To this day cabins on ships are called staterooms.
These were floating theaters built on a barge that was pushed by a steamboat. These played small town along the Mississippi River . Unlike the boat shown in the movie “Showboat” these did not have an engine. They were gaudy and attention grabbing which is why we say someone who is being the life of the party is “showboating”. This last statement is not proved out by the accompanying photo for this term. Just goes to show.
Used to describe a good, nutritious dinner, it is a nautical phrase dating back centuries. Sailors on old battleships had notoriously poor diets – breakfast and lunch would rarely be better than bread and water – but the last meal of each day would at least include meat and have some substance. Any significant meal would be served on large square wooden boards – designed to be stacked and stowed easily – hence the phrase ‘a square meal’.
(1 million google hits) In the early 16th century, involved real horses. “Stalking horses” were trained to allow a hunter to dismount and then use the horse as a blind to conceal his presence as he “stalked” the game… which apparently did not notice that it was being approached by a six-legged horse. Or a horse with an undercarriage.
THE HAIR OF THE DOG
A hangover remedy, requiring the afflicted to imbibe more drinks the morning after the night before in order to cure a sore head. The phrase is shortened from ‘the hair of the dog that bit you’, taken from an early English medical theory (i.e. guess) which suggested rubbing the hair of the offending dog into a bite would heal the wound. The phrase was used in many variations until settling down as a hangover remedy.
TURN A BLIND EYE
The British Naval hero, Admiral Horatio Nelson, had one blind eye. Once when the British forces signaled for him to stop attacking a fleet of Danish ships, he held up a telescope to his blind eye and said, “I do not see the signal.” He attacked and was victorious. Which reminds me that the Brit marines used to wear red tunics so that they would not show blood to the enemy when they were hit. French marines wore brown pants for a similar reason.
UNDER THE WEATHER
Meaning to feel unwell and unable to function properly, this is yet another phrase of nautical origin. When a sailor was ill he would be sent below decks, or ‘under the weather’, where it was dry, warm, and he could more readily recover. But really aren’t we always “under the weather?” Those few brave men up in the space station maybe are over the weather, but us? Seems to me we’re under, or at least in, the weather all the time. Unless we’re dead. Which reminds me of a story I’ve told before on these pages of a doctor telling a man that he had some really bad disease and only had a few weeks to live. Man implored the good doctor to help him, to do something and the doctor told him to go down to the slam blam spa and get a mud bath. The man asked if this would help with the disease and the Doctor said no, but it’ll get you used to dirt.
UP TO SCRATCH
It’s a boxing term. At one time a line was scratched on the ground to mark the point where the fighters would meet. By failing to come up to the scratch, one would default the match. Also seems to me that it could be a term used in horse racing… that all horses in the race would be required to come up to the scratch drawn in the ground to start racing. Or women racing on horsey tricycles. It might also have to do with some operation that a fellow named Scratch was running, when someone asked if they could take off for lunch.
Used to imply a person has gained an advantage in a contest or social situation. This phrase dates back to the 15th century and a pastime involving two or more contestants. The first player grips a staff at the bottom end while the next places their hand just above it. This goes on, hand over hand, until the upper end of the shaft is reached: the last person to be able to take a grip has the ‘upper hand’. This method of finding a random winner was often used in baseball and cricket in the 1900s when hands would be placed on a bat and the last to take a grip got to play the game first. These days of course, we just flip a coin. We’re missing out on some gripping stick action, clearly.
WARTS AND ALL
Meaning that no attempt be made to cover any defects or hide unsavory detail, this phrase dates back to radical politician and Monarch-bothered Oliver Cromwell. As was fashionable in the 17th-century, portrait painters would soften the features of their subjects by removing blemishes and facial lines from their work (an early form of air-brushing), so the end result would always be flattering. But when Cromwell, as Lord Protector, commissioned Sir Peter Levy to paint his portrait, he issued the artist with the following instructions: ‘I desire you would use all your skill to paint my picture truly like I am and not flatter me at all. Remark all these roughness, pimples, warts and everything as you see me, otherwise I will never pay you a farthing for it.’ The end result does include a large wart, just below Cromwell’s lower lip. These days, going sans Photoshop in magazines is all the rage, but Cromwell was doing it 400 years ago. Must have been tough back then. Harder to alter reality. Had to go with what God gave you.
WITHOUT BATTING AN EYE
Used to describe a person taking a situation in their stride. ‘Bate’ is a long obsolete English word meaning ‘to flutter’ or ‘to beat the wings’ as a butterfly might. When a person reacted to something without blinking or showing any signs of surprise, they were regarded as ‘not even bateing an eyelid’, which later morphed into the phrase we use today. Here in Las Vegas gambling halls “batting an eye” is called “a tell.” In a club on the strip, “batting an eye” is a come on. “Without batting an eye” is what you must do when you get home goin’ on 4 am smelling like lap dances and you say to the wife that you are late coming in because you had car trouble.
Though come on, at my age, I should wish for problems like this.
Whatever, I've enjoyed this. Here's looking at you.